Increasing severity of natural disasters underscores need for technology and preparation

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A year of devastating natural disasters – $145 billion in weather-related damages in 2021 – tested public safety agencies like never before. Technology proved essential to preparedness, response and recovery. 

June marks the official start of the 2022 hurricane season, which forecasters predict will be another above average season, making it the seventh season in a row with higher-than-normal activity. The forecast for the current wildfire season follows suit, with predictions of high intensity. Already this year, Southeast Florida was hit with severe rain showers following the landfall of Tropical Storm Alex, and New Mexico has battled its largest fire in state history. As this trend of increasingly severe natural disasters continues, the need for resilient and reliable technology solutions has never been more imperative. 

As public safety agencies across the nation prepare for not only the current season but those ahead, technology continues to cement its role as a must-have investment. This article provides an overview of the technologies agencies can use to navigate an active natural disaster season and the actionable steps they can take to ensure preparedness.

Land mobile radio for resilient and reliable communication 

Project 25 (P25) radio networks and two-way radios are lifelines for first responders. They provide the ruggedized communications responders regularly rely on, especially as they navigate high stress and dangerous environments. These radio systems are built to remain operational, even when cellular networks are down. They’re resilient to high winds and hardened for operation during floods or other major weather events. 

If a segment becomes disconnected from the network, it will continue to operate, and first responders can use it to communicate with each other. In addition, if no infrastructure is available, first responders can still communicate radio to radio, using their high-power transmitters. Many systems are configured for interoperability with statewide or neighboring systems, so agencies can easily collaborate across jurisdictions as they respond to major events. Last year, Hurricane Ida exposed the vulnerabilities of carrier networks, and four days after the storm made landfall, 38% of cell sites in the state remained out of service. Public safety agencies throughout the state relied on their P25 statewide radio network for resilient and interoperable communications to facilitate rescue and restoration efforts. 

Cloud-based radio network cores offer redundancy and management security 

Next-generation cloud-based technologies improve the security management and resiliency of land mobile radio networks. Agencies now have the option to utilize cloud-based secondary cores — also known as back-up sites — for their P25 land mobile radio networks. This eliminates the need for a physical, in-building secondary core that can be affected by severe weather events. Thus, if a natural disaster strikes and a master site is damaged, communications will automatically switch to the back-up cloud-based core for seamless communications for first responders.

Command center software for 360-degree operating picture 

When time is of the essence, software that streamlines and mobilizes data is invaluable. Command centers serve as a centralized hub of information for public safety agencies and provide a holistic view of any given situation. When tracking a hurricane or an active wildfire, there are many factors at play simultaneously. With command center software, public safety agencies can track varying sets of data at one time. For example, they can pull up weather and cell tower alerts, the locations of different units and evacuation routes — all in one place. This ensures that data and information work together, instead of operating separately in different silos. In addition, software now allows agencies to monitor and leverage this information both on-premise or remotely through cloud-based systems. Thus, if staff is evacuated due to an emergency or needs to work off-site, they can still access vital information instantly, when every second counts. 

Video technology for enhanced visibility

Live video captures key information in real-time, relaying valuable information to first responders. Fixed video cameras can help monitor rising water levels before, during and after a storm. They can also provide damage assessment to help first responders prioritize restoration sites. In addition, cameras across communities can help first responders spot people who need assistance following the impact of a natural disaster. Furthermore, many agencies use drones to assess areas that may be dangerous or difficult for first responders to access. When deployed, they can measure the impact of a hurricane and track the status of a wildfire – information that  can then be shared directly with an agency’s command center. 

Actionable steps to ensure preparedness

Catastrophes can happen at any moment, which means agencies must be prepared for communications issues at all times. It is never too late to prepare and ensure plans are effective in practice. Running periodic drills and mock scenarios is a great way for agencies to test their processes. Ensuring technology is running smoothly and back-up items are in place is also imperative. There are many ways agencies can increase their levels of preparation. 

For example, agencies should aim to have a surplus of supplies if possible. When volunteers and assisting agencies are brought in to help support restoration efforts following a natural disaster, they will need reliable two-way radios to communicate seamlessly with one another. Agencies should plan to have at least 15% more radios than their current supply to ensure collaborative communication when additional parties are involved. The same goes for the corresponding batteries, chargers and antennas. It is also important to check all spare equipment to verify that they are the correct versions and working properly, as it will be all-hands-on-deck when a natural disaster occurs. There are many teams involved with responding to natural disasters. To prepare for the worst, it is best to have all parties contacted and prepared ahead of time. This includes identifying technicians that are located outside of the impacted area, contacting public safety answering points to make sure they have everything they need and reaching out to emergency operation centers to confirm that they have the proper resources at hand.

Communication readiness is key before, during and after natural disasters. By putting these actionable steps in place, public safety agencies can instill the proper redundancies. These preparation practices, paired with the utilization of resilient and reliable technologies, ensures public safety agencies are ready when disaster strikes. 

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