How to keep communication networks working during natural disasters

Communications systems often control the success rate of rescue efforts in a disaster-stricken situation. If a communication network fails to be up and running in the first few minutes of a disaster, rescuers and victims lose the opportune 24-48 hours that are critical to taking stock of the situation to saving lives.

Rescue operation in disaster hit areas

International aid agencies and other tech biggies provide tools to keep the lines of communication open between rescue teams and people. But the real, on-ground problem is the heavy reliance on everyday mobile networks, as they are the first ones to go down. Club that with the large-scale power outages that leave no room to charge a mobile phone – so there goes that possibility of using your phone for whatever little network seepage you may be getting.

When disaster strikes, network systems go down due to various reasons. The physical links break and if not that, then the networks get congested with call traffic. While urban areas face the problem of call drops and busy signals when calling to check on friends and family, the situation worsens in rural areas. By virtue, most last-mile areas lack basic cellular and internet connectivity. Which means coordination and connectivity becomes a floodgate of problems for dispersed rescue teams, people, family members and aid workers. As with the Nepal earthquake of April 26th, 2015, mobile networks – both cellular and internet – went down so poorly that aid workers had to run around using hand-written notes.*  

What makes a communication network stable?

Unlike the usual walkie-talkies that allow limited point-to-point communication, a stable, disaster-ready network allows point-to-multipoint communication. Which means multiple people can communicate from multiple locations and sources – rescue teams and local forces can communicate with each other, with the local offices, and call for backup. But more than that, rescue teams need a dedicated private network with dedicated bandwidth for uninterrupted communication that can be up and running in just minutes.

For specialised uses like emergency situations, any network infrastructure should be rapidly deployable. The four primary elements of a stable communication network being:

  1. Needs almost no technical assistance: Should work as a ‘plug and play’ so it takes only a few minutes to set it up and to get you instant connectivity
  2. Compatible with any backhaul type: Should be able to co-exist with whatever is available in terms of backhaul
  3. Portable: Should be compact and mobile so the operator can easily move the set up in case of the next imminent danger
  4. Low-power consumption: Should run on bite-sized and relatively lighter storehouses of power like batteries because electric power grids are usually blipping or are down.  

So, is stable, reliable, scalable communication possible in disaster situations?

Absolutely. Communication solutions like Omoco’s Disaster Response Network Solution lets rescue teams set up an instant private network in a matter of minutes.  With a single hardware unit, this network-in-a-box has built-in power and is rapidly deployable for ad-hoc voice and data services. It provides an autonomous, standalone as well as distributed network and easily integrates with VoIP through satellites and IP radios.

Fit in a rugged box the size of a suitcase, our  Disaster Response Network Solution usually runs on its own, without the need for existing communications infrastructure – which is what makes it reliable, scalable and stable.

All you have to do is click open the case, mount the antenna on a 3 meter or a 9 meter tripod (supplied along with the kit), switch it on and done. All aid workers in the vicinity of the network bubble can then easily ride on Omoco’s private network.  

For extending range during operation, a tripod and high-gain antenna are packed in another hand-carry packaging box. To span coverage to the mainland, all you have to do is connect the FNR kit with VSAT/IP backhaul.

Apart from setting up a first response network, you can also use the  Disaster Response Network Solution to:

  1. Gather intelligence on the number of casualties: This helps you with planning the amount of aid and supplies needed from the mainland
  2. Establish a Local Control Centre (LCC): An LCC makes it easy for victims to reach out to a central contact number. This in turn makes response time faster for aid workers and helps them monitor, control and distribute aid wherever needed
  3. Let any 3rd party network to latch on to Omoco’s private network: Anyone falling under the radius of the network bubble can ride on the first respondent network irrespective of their mobile service provider
  4. Establish an IP-based public address system: Relay critical, real-time information across affected areas.

With Omoco’s high performance, ad-hoc, first respondent kit, aid workers and emergency services communicate as one unit as soon as they arrive at the scene. Receiving uninterrupted voice and data from multiple sources by a network that’ set up before the aid arrives makes the first 24-48 hours critical to managing a disaster/emergency situation.