Acting fast when disaster strikes

04 April 2023

The immediate aftermath in the wake of a disaster is a critical time for saving lives and infrastructure, neither of which is possible without effective wireless communications. Amy Saunders consults those in the know for their opinions on critical communications

Global natural disaster rates are on the rise, with increasing numbers of earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, droughts, and fires recorded decade on decade.

Such disasters leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake; the highest death toll by natural disaster since 1980 came in at 220,000 lives lost during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in southeast Asia. The 2010 Pakistan and 2018 Kerala floods, 2015 Nepal earthquake, and recent Turkey-Syria earthquakes are examples of these catastrophic events that have resulted in significant loss of life and extensive damage to infrastructure.

The link between natural disasters and global warming has been established. Droughts and deforestation increase the risk of landslides after storms; fracking has been linked with increased earthquake activity; and rising global temperatures are increasing droughts and wildfires. Since 2015, seven of the nine hottest temperatures on record were measured, making it a pretty sound conclusion that we can expect natural disasters to continue to increase in frequency and severity as the years go by – unless we get a handle on the climate crisis…

Countries and governments today must ensure that their disaster response plans are up to date and more fine-tuned than ever before.

When disaster strikes…

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, re-establishing communications is essential to coordinate rescue and relief operations. Many types of disaster disable or destroy terrestrial communications infrastructure like cell towers and fibre, leaving first responders relying on alternative technologies.

Christian Patouraux, founder and CEO of Kacific Broadband Satellites Group, experienced one of the region’s most deadly tsunamis in recent times: the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. He was on a small island where the death rate hit 50%. After the impact, all communication ceased. People were severely wounded and needed emergency evacuation.

“In Southern Asia, disasters like earthquakes and floods usually destroy or uproot mobile towers and fibre lines, and locals or victims are not able to reach out to emergency services. Also, communications between rescue parties and government departments are hindered,” says Christian Patouraux, CEO, Kacific Broadband Satellites. “When split-second decisions can lead to saving lives, it is essential to have access to reliable communications infrastructure to make agile decisions and share this information with key personnel leading the rescues.”

The availability of wireless connectivity is vital for effective coordination in any disaster response, says Kevin Graham, CEO, TCCA. “Immediate assessment of wireless coverage from existing terrestrial narrowband and mobile cellular networks, if available, in the disaster zone or hotspots is essential for local public protection and disaster (PPDR) first response agencies, essential service organisations, aid organisations and local and international agencies who may also engage to support local resources. Establishing the state of links back to existing agency incident control and command centres and ongoing monitoring of availability of the end-to-end connectivity with terrestrial networks dictates the prioritisation for deployment of additional equipment and network support personnel.”

With this in mind, “initially a direct mode of operation (DMO) mission critical communications network needs to be set up, allowing a portable/ temporary base station to provide the capability to support rescue efforts,” asserts Koh Cheng Soi, business development manager – Asia, Sepura. “The DMO will enable any subscribers to quickly communicate vital information to team members during the initial rescue effort, particularly in the immediate aftermath when it is still possible to save lives. Having equipment charged and ready to go, including having trained staff on hand, is key for the quick deployment of the communications network.”

Dispatching personnel and equipment must be as fast as possible when disaster strikes, reports Winter Leng, ICT specialist and senior technical manager, Hytera. “The first step is to evaluate the situation, categorise the incidents, and develop a response plan to coordinate resources promptly and effectively. The most urgent issue is to grasp the first three days after the occurrence, commonly known as the ‘golden 72 hours,’ to take search and rescue measures and save lives. Meanwhile, real-time situational awareness is imperative to make informed decisions and share critical information among agencies.”

Where coverage is unavailable or has been affected during the disaster, direct mode and local repeater facilities in handheld and vehicle mounted narrowband radios (TETRA/P25/DMR and analogue), satcoms, high frequency transceivers, and even citizen band radios are relied upon for initial localised communications between individual agency personnel, says Graham. “Deployment of portable/vehicle mounted narrowband base stations or cell sites and mobile incident command centres, which may also incorporate satellite backhaul facilities, become the next priority to establish larger coverage, greater capacity, and improved situational awareness for first responder organisations.”

Indeed, re-establishing communications in the wake of a disaster is no easy task. The unpredictable and frequent nature of disasters in southern Asia make it difficult to prepare for what’s next.

“The region is exposed to natural disasters with some countries having low lying areas with limited coastal defences and others located on known disaster fault lines,” says Subodh Vardhan, vice president & managing director South & South East Asia at Motorola Solutions. “From a technology standpoint, this further emphasises the need for robust and reliable communication. The availability of spectrum also differs across countries, so technologies that enable instant, interoperable and seamless communication are very important.”

“Disparity of wireless communications infrastructure, low levels of network resiliency and lack of interagency interoperability across the ecosystems are a huge barrier to effective disaster response coordination and recovery,” asserts Graham. “The major challenge is encouraging governments to move towards and fund international open standards-based communications infrastructure that supports critical agency and critical industry user functionality, and to ensure terrestrial networks are complemented with adequate satellite-based capability and devices for redundancy and/or for temporary network coverage of the disaster area. This may also necessitate improvements to legal and regulatory policy to enable such capability to be supported.”

A large-scale disaster requires the cooperation of multiple agencies and disciplines. “However, the use of different communication technologies by emergency responders and agencies can hinder interoperability, making effective coordination the biggest challenge,” says Leng.

Koh Cheng Soi agrees: “the devices need to be appropriate for the requirements of the operation – to be recovering from a serious episode such as a tsunami, earthquake, or major fire, users need devices capable of working in dirty, hot or wet environments with no impact on performance.”

It can be challenging to connect to vulnerable populations in high-risk areas, however, “regulatory policies can be revised to simplify the requirements for disaster preparedness service providers, making it easier for new companies to enter the market and offer affordable services,” observes Patouraux. “Some of the biggest challenges we see today are in educating and convincing the relevant parties of the need for disaster preparedness – preparing and having essential equipment to enable communications.”

The occurrence of large-scale disasters has demonstrated, often through its failure, that the communications network is among the most essential components of critical infrastructure, states Leng. “Although Tetra network is typically hardened, it is still prone to disruption from power outages, building collapse and transmission failure in the event of infrastructure damage caused by large-scale disasters,” explains Leng. Network congestion due to overuse by the panicked public, limited radio spectrum availability and interference, and road disruptions, also make it difficult to reach affected areas.

Leng outlines how search and rescue may need to be carried out in less-populated remote areas and challenging environments, such as caves, mountains, and oceans, which often have poor cellular coverage, especially in southern Asia, one of the most digitally divided regions. In addition, cellular networks, which are not primarily designed for the use of PPDR, can be more readily impaired by power interruptions or the destruction of infrastructure.

“The digitalisation of two-way radio has been ongoing for decades, with the development of digital technologies collectively known as ‘gold’ open standard professional/private mobile radio (PMR),” explains Leng. “However, about 90% of radios in southern Asia are obsolete analogues. Accelerating the transition to digital radio will overcome challenges and benefit responders with expanded capabilities, including optimal spectrum utilisation, decreased radio interference, better voice quality, wider-range coverage, and more extended battery life with higher power efficiency.”

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to overcome these challenges in disaster response; a comprehensive approach with advanced technologies, rigorous planning, and collaboration among all stakeholders is necessary.

Technologies on the frontline

With few exceptions, southern Asian countries are well behind other nations who have more resilient multiagency interoperable mission critical narrowband networks, “and are moving towards, or have already established mission critical cellular broad capability (towards 3GPP MCX standards compliance),” reports Graham.
Southern Asian countries which have allocated radio spectrum and invested in national government multi agency, interoperable, open standards-based, high availability, and redundant digital narrowband network infrastructure, such as TETRA, coupled with rapid deployable assets (TETRA, cellular, satellite and HF) are clearly the best prepared for disasters (e.g., Singapore, Malaysia), continues Graham. “Others have digital or analogue narrowband networks with limited, or no, interagency sharing and interoperability, comparatively lower geographic coverage/capacity, and availability/redundancy.”

In technology terms, Leng believes that voice-first is crucial, and Vardhan agrees: “the demand for voice communication for effective disaster management isn’t going away. The TETRA and APCO P25 radio standards have long been the most proven global standards for providing resilient and dependable communication for emergency services,” says Vardhan. “In fact, land mobile radio (LMR) continues to benefit from continued investment and innovation including the development of HF radios that provide long-distance communications without the need for infrastructure.”

Indeed, narrowband is still the de facto choice to provide the necessary mission critical voice for swift command and coordination. “TETRA radios remain the most used devices among the public safety agencies globally for its versatile and easy deployment and robust design,” says Koh Cheng Soi.

Throughout history, LMR has provided the most resilient and reliable form of communication because “even if LMR infrastructure is damaged, LMR handsets can operate via DMO for point-to-point communications on the ground without the need for communications infrastructure,” says Vardhan. “This is especially important for enhancing situational awareness and safety among first responders who need to share real-time updates about how events are unfolding.”

“With so many disasters nowadays requiring a multi-agency response, it’s also important to have equipment such as donor radios programmed and ready to go into the hands of first responders as soon as they arrive on scene,” says Vardhan.

However, in some emergencies the best and most effective devices for first responders to use are the ones they already carry. That may be a radio handset, but it may also be a smartphone or tablet. “This need has driven the development of broadband push-to-talk services as well as the integration between conventional radio and satellite services to provide continuous coverage in rural and remote areas that may not be serviced by other networks,” explains Vardhan. “A growing number of public safety agencies are investing in converged mobile devices that bring together reliable voice communication and access to vital data applications within the one handset.”

Leng agrees: “technological convergence is affecting mission-critical communication; a multi-mode rugged device that combines a range of wireless technologies is another field to be put on the prioritised development list, avoiding carrying multiple devices by first responders. The smart device can seamlessly attach and handoff across different networks and even fall back to DMO mode, roaming between two MNO networks without disrupting end users’ attention.”

While voice is inarguably essential for first responder operations, the importance of data for disaster response programmes is growing.

“When time is of the essence, a picture is worth more than a thousand words. The growing use of advanced multiple-hops MESH technologies with the ability to add or remove nodes without impact on the overall system is vital,” says Leng. “It can provide flexible and robust connectivity through manpack, vehicle-mounted and aerial approaches, which is exceptionally suitable for establishing high-performing data networks in remote and hard-to-reach areas.”

But the information collected from sensors is of little value unless it can be efficiently transmitted, processed, and conveyed to the end user through decision-making platforms.

“The continuing emergence of advanced, AI-enabled video and software tools are helping to further strengthen the links between responders in the field and their colleagues in the control room,” asserts Vardhan. “The ‘visualisation’ of information in the aftermath of a major event such as an earthquake is vitally important. For example, drones and robots can be sent in ahead of human responders to broadcast real-time images, video streams and other situational updates back to the control room. This helps to increase awareness of what dangers may lie ahead before placing responders at risk.”

Other new and emerging technologies include intelligent video analytics solutions, AI, citizen engagement tools and software that can filter, analyse, and present actionable data from the masses of information generated during an emergency. “Giving responders the most relevant and precise information they need during a crisis helps them to make better and faster decisions and ultimately leads to a safer and more efficient response,” says Vardhan.

Planning for the worst

Natural disasters are increasing in size and frequency, with recorded events worldwide and in southern Asia surging nearly fivefold in the past 50 years, resulting in extensive damage and significant loss of life.

From a big picture perspective, governments, public-private sectors, and international organizations can accelerate the development of practical solutions by “investing in developing and implementing satellite internet-based communications solutions for disaster management even in the most remote and disaster-stricken areas; encouraging public-private partnerships for disaster management, including investment in research and development, and collaborating on developing and implementing comprehensive disaster risk reduction policies and strategies; and providing technical and financial support for disaster management initiatives and projects, particularly in developing countries,” says Patouraux.

The recent devastating earthquake in Turkey and the new extreme events demonstrate the need to re-examine and rethink our mission-critical communication networks and related systems, says Leng. Indeed, in the wake of a disaster, the impact of rapid response and recovery of communications networks cannot be underestimated, making all the difference between life and death. In enhancing response times, Graham believes that the establishment of harmonised and open standards-based multimode multiagency wireless communications infrastructure within Asian nations is key.

“A well-known term associated with disaster response is the ‘Golden Hour’ - the brief but critical window of time after disaster strikes where the actions of responders can make all the difference in saving lives and property,” says Vardhan. “Success during the Golden Hour during a major crisis requires a continuous cycle of strategic and operational planning to establish the right priorities, planning, equipment, and training needs. The future of emergency management will be defined by technology that enables agencies to seamlessly communicate with each other while integrating new data sources to create an even clearer, common picture as disaster unfolds.”
We must “improve and align national disaster preparedness and response plans incorporating all critical agencies and critical infrastructure organisations leveraging advancements in the telecommunication ecosystem,” says Graham. Radio spectrum harmonisation, the allocation and coordination across government and telecoms carriers with cross border coordination to support rapid deployables, temporary coverage establishment and mutual aid user devices, all have their role to play.
Further, “the alignment of legal and regulatory policy including radio spectrum and border control for temporary import/export in the case of mutual aid communications equipment would all enhance the speed of effectiveness for disaster response,” reports Graham.

While mission-critical voice communication remains essential to first responders, “the incorporation of real-time video (CCTV, satellite, airborne, carry-on cameras, etc.) and critical sensor data (environmental, biometric), combined with other data services (weather, social media, etc.), is playing an increasingly vital role in modernising public safety communication,” asserts Leng. “By monitoring the situation in real-time and delivering critical information to incident leaders and first responders, they can quickly assess the situation and take appropriate action to minimise damage and protect lives.”

A systematic methodology and emerging technologies to connect, collect and compute data and create new applications (four ‘C’) intelligently, accurately, and timely, are required, says Leng. “This is commonly known as cyber-physical system (CPS). Of the key pillars of the 4C model, robust, reliable, and trustworthy connectivity is the essential precondition for the other three.”

Currently, the deployment of LTE and MCX-centric next-gen mission-critical communications is underway. “However, with the advent of the ‘hybrid network’ era, modernising mission-critical communications involves more than just digitising radio systems or broadband-isation. Instead, it can be considered as integrating a range of technologies, including analogue and digital radio, LTE/5G/MESH, IoT sensors, control room, and cloud, to enhance situational awareness and decision-making and ultimately improve efficiency, effectiveness, and safety. While this transformation journey may be long, it promises significant benefits and can be the difference between success and failure, life and death,” concludes Leng.