Coping When Technology Goes Off-line
By Becky Lewis
Tornadoes. Blizzards. Tropical storms. Earthquakes. Wildfires. All of these natural disasters have one potential consequence in common: the only technology left may be no technology.
In the aftermath of the devastating May 20 tornado that struck Moore and other parts of suburban Oklahoma City, one of the most useful aids that first responders had available was plain old-fashioned hard copy maps showing the locations of registered storm shelters in the affected area. Those paper maps, printed out at a facility outside the affected area, led rescue workers where they needed to go to check for injured and trapped survivors.
“The most important lesson we can share with other public safety agencies is that you need to make sure you’re prepared to operate without technology. Roads were covered with debris and downed wires, and our computers and phone systems were pretty useless. We learned that some of our assumptions about what technology would be available to us after a natural disaster were inaccurate,” says Lt. Jason Bussert, supervisor of the Data Systems Unit for the Oklahoma City Police Department, and a participant in the June 2013 Technology Institute for Law Enforcement sponsored by the National Institute of Justice.
452 with major damage
640 with minor damage
In Moore, a community of about 41,000 people, 1,248 homes were destroyed and more than 1,000 others suffered either major or minor damage. Landlines and cell towers went out of service, leaving communications sketchy at best and non-existent at worst.
Lt. Bussert says that in a November meeting with their wireless provider, they estimated that 3-4 hours without cell service would be a worst-case scenario, because the company would bring in portable cell-on-wheels (COW) units to act as backups if towers went down. However, the damage from the May 20 storm was so severe it tore control boxes out of the ground, leaving the COWs unable to operate: “They got them back up as quickly as they could, but it took a couple of days. In addition to the impact on our communications, citizens take their cell phones into the storm shelters with them, and if their phones don’t work, they can’t call 911 to let us know that they are trapped.”
Technology advances impacted landline service as well: with providers switching from traditional service to DSL in many areas, the widespread power outages also knocked out landline service in many places, including the church used as a command post by Oklahoma City first responders. With data connections also down due to power outages, officers couldn’t access data from their in-car laptop computers, leading to the use of the valuable paper maps.
“We used them to do grid searches and find tornado shelters,” Bussert says. Another valuable resource turned out to be a microwave link that Oklahoma City had purchased to use with a mobile tower received from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Placed on the roof of the command center, the microwave link restored communications until their wireless provider came back online.
“We were pleasantly surprised to find that our radios worked well, although we did learn that we had issues regarding officers’ not leaving channels free for the use of dispatch,” Bussert says. “In addition, we will provide command with dedicated channels for their use and we will ensure that senior administration personnel have printed laminated maps on hand. Also, we probably didn’t use Incident Command System procedures perfectly, but we did use ICS effectively. We got public works involved right off the bat, we got the power lines shut off so we could clear the roads, we got portable sanitation in place and within 24 hours, citizens could return to their neighborhoods to assess damage in a safe manner.”
For more information on the NIJ Technology Institutes for Law Enforcement, contact NIJ Senior Law Enforcement Program Manager Mike O’Shea at (202) 305-7954 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Oklahoma City’s response to the May 20 tornado, contact Lt. Jason Bussert at (405) 316-5100 or by email at email@example.com