Members from a cross section of Verizon’s crisis management teams met with regional first responders at the company’s Howard County Network Operations Center in June to discuss ways in which the telecommunications company can support local emergency operations.
“What we are talking about is … what we do to protect our cellular assets and ultimately protect [our customers’] cellular service,” said Janet Imwold, business sales director for Verizon. The intent, she said, is to ensure that response agencies can communicate during disasters and also have a workable plan in case those connections fail.
Contingency communication plans are becoming increasingly crucial for responders given the rising frequency and scope of natural disasters that have occurred in the mid-Atlantic region in recent years.
Climate Central, a non-lobbying, nonprofit organization that conducts scientific research and surveys on climate change, explored the trend in its 2014 report titled, “Blackout: Extreme Weather, Climate Change and Power Outages,” by Alyson Kenward and Urooj Raja.
Analyzing 28 years of power outage data supplied to the federal government and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. by utilities, the report shows a tenfold increase in major power outages affecting more than 50,000 customer homes or businesses between the mid-1980s and 2012.
Part of the increase can be ascribed to improved reporting, but compilers also note that the average annual number of weather-related power outages doubled since 2003, after stricter reporting requirements were implemented. Since that time, 80% of all outages have been identified as weather-related.
The report ranks the state of Maryland sixth in the nation in terms of major weather-related outages between 2003 and 2012, taking into account blackouts, fuel shortages and emergency appeals for reduced electricity usage.
COWs, COLTs and GOATs
During an open house tour for responders, Verizon officials showed off the state-of-the-art assets it deploys on the front line of disasters. “We’re often times the first responder [on the scene],” said Stuart Burson, associate director of Verizon’s Satellite Solutions Group. “We’re able to provide lighting for security, and the responders set up around us so we can integrate with them and give them whatever support they need.”
Verizon’s portable assets include Generators on a Truck (GOATs), temporary towers designated Cell on Wheels (COWs) and Cell on Light Trucks (COLTs) that can replace a lost signal or initiate a signal that didn’t exist before.
Those assets were instrumental in restoring service when Verizon lost four cellphone towers during the historic 2011 Alabama tornado outbreak.
“In less than 40 hours we were able to get a mobile antenna structure up, get FCC clearance and light it up again,” recalled Tom Serio, Verizon’s Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery manager.
Verizon is also prepared to help responders who are unable to take advantage of its network.
“Some [responders] in rural areas can’t communicate well, can’t talk on phones or don’t have Verizon service,” Serio said. “As part of our program we give them phones and broadband devices to use. We don’t bill anybody, they just give us the devices back. It’s the right thing for us to be doing.”
Verizon’s largest portable asset is its 53-foot tractor-trailer. A satellite dish mounted on the trailer enables instant communications anywhere in the world, bypassing any ground-based outages.
Inside, 24 reconfigurable workstations are available for the use of responders or for natural disaster victims to charge cell phones, begin submitting Federal Emergency Management Agency claims on laptops, and communicate with family members around the world via telephone or e-mail.
Verizon’s disaster response support fleet consists of two tractor-trailers and six smaller mobile office trailers. In April, local assets were sent to Baltimore to provide mobile charging stations for the Maryland National Guard while it was deployed in response to the Baltimore riots.
In addition to equipment and technicians, the company also fields its own Major Emergency Response Incident Team (MERIT) that is prepared to deal with hazardous materials and hazardous environments.
“The team was created because you don’t want a fireman going inside your facility taking care of a piece of delicate communications equipment,” said Mike Cochran, MERIT team lead. “It was easier to teach telecommunications technicians how to be a Hazmat tech than the other way around.”
Blue Sky Planning
Verizon streamlines its crisis management support by including an executive on every team to enable decisions on the fly, Serio said. “Local empowerment [means] we don’t have to go back to corporate and wait for a decision.”
Many Verizon employees also volunteer to help out at disasters, he noted, and many have cross-functional training.
Serio encouraged emergency response agency representatives from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, who were on hand for the tour, to include Verizon in their training exercises and arrange to begin discussing collaborative planning on a so-called blue-sky day.
“We want to be a partner, not just a vendor,” he said. “’[We’d like to] integrate a little bit more and start that dialogue before the proverbial stuff hits the fan. The last thing you want to do at disaster time is look in the Yellow Pages for [help].”