Conventional wisdom says POTS lines, generators and radios will help keep your communications operating during a disaster. But who would have thought that pay phones could be a valuable addition to the mix?
It’s true. That’s the advice from John Lyon, telecom manager at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, and telecom auditor Art Yonemoto, president of Yonemoto and Associates. The two recently recorded a Telecom Junkies podcast in advance of the June 1 kickoff of what many are predicting will be an active hurricane season. (www.telecomjunkies.com)
Though most pay phones are going the way of the dinosaurs, Lyon is glad his airport had a high concentration of pay phones when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. When the storm struck, the airport became the hub for 5,000 military personnel and some 30,000 medical patients – not to mention employees and evacuees [VR 7/24/06]. These phones were the only way many had to call loved ones when cellular voice channels became overwhelmed.
Lyon contacted the airport’s pay phone provider during Katrina and asked it to make calls from the phones free. The pay phones could be used for local and long distance calls, and the carrier put a three-minute limit on each call. Lyon has since incorporated a provision into his pay phone contract that calls will again be free during the next emergency.
It’s just one of the emergency readiness measures he’s implemented since the storm. But the following strategies could just as easily factor into your enterprise’s preparations for earthquakes, floods, tornadoes or other catastrophes.
Save Some Pay Phones from Extinction
Even if your PBX is still functional, there’s a chance your enterprise’s local carrier will block all calls from non-essential entities – like your business – during a disaster. Pay phones can be your enterprise’s lifeline because phone companies consider them to be emergency phones, Yonemoto says.
Your users might not get a dial tone on a pay phone right away during an emergency because the carrier’s switches will be busy; the trick is to wait a few moments, Yonemoto adds. He knows. He relied on pay phones to call home when he was near the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and in San Francisco during the earthquake that rattled the 1989 World Series.
Consider keeping one or two pay phones in strategic areas around your enterprise, he advises. Your business might even be required by contracts with unions to keep pay phones available in the break room, for example. Contact your local carrier to get pay phones installed, and expect to pay between $50 and $80 a month per phone.
IP Telephony + Satellites = Redundant Communications
The New Orleans airport ran into trouble during Katrina because central offices were flooded and its PBX was destabilized by power failures, Lyon reports. The enterprise was forced to resort to POTS lines and text messaging. Since then, the airport has undergone a $20 million project to replace its aging emergency operations center and communications center.
Next on Lyon’s shopping list: an IP telephony system. IP telephony can be beneficial in a disaster because it enables you to have a backup server in a remote location, which can keep voice traffic flowing as long as the network is up, notes IP telephony expert Gary Audin, president of Delphi Inc., in Arlington, Va.
Should terrestrial networks go down, IP traffic can be routed over the bandwidth provided by satellite modems like Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) and VSAT modems, Lyon says.
True, there will be latency, you’ll be on a different phone number and you won’t have access to features like conferencing or forwarding. But just getting a message across becomes your top priority during a catastrophe, Lyon says.
BGAN satellite modems are about the size of laptops and retail for about $2,500 to $3,000 each [VR 7/24/06].
NOLA Airport to Rely on PoE, Generators
The airport’s move to IP telephony necessitates upgrading its network components to power over Ethernet (PoE). If you’re investigating a similar move, note that PoE will take up more juice – and battery backups – than just powering the LAN switches alone, Audin cautions.
The NOLA airport’s power will be kept running by generators: A three-megawatt generator backs up the building’s main power feed to run things like lights and jet ways, and an 800-kilowatt generator is on hand to power emergency lights, radios and TSA gear.
A 600-kilowatt generator (cost: $300,000) will be installed in the airport’s new emergency operations center and communications center. There was so much flying debris during Katrina – Lyon watched as part of the airport’s roof was torn off – that the new generator will be wind- and missile-rated. Plus, all the equipment in the new facility will be 10 feet above ground level in anticipation of flooding.
WiFi Stops the Hunt for Jacks
The NOLA airport also deployed building-wide WiFi. There’s more behind the roll-out than meeting travelers’ demand for wireless Internet. During Katrina, people started scouring the airport looking for jacks to plug in Ethernet cables so they could get Internet access, Lyon says. Much of the airport’s equipment got unplugged in the process.
The WiFi network has a segment for travelers, a virtual LAN for FEMA, another VLAN for emergency responders and an SSID dedicated to Lyon and his team, he explains.
An appliance called “Lock Box” enables the airport to scale its bandwidth and even route its WiFi traffic over satellite during an emergency, Lyon says.
Radios Provide Another Option
If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative than satellite backup or lots of generators, check out radios. Lyon says ham radios were very effective during the storm, thanks in part to a partnership among airports and the TSA to use the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS). The Army, Air Force and Navy-Marine Corps’ combined MARS programs have a volunteer force of more than 5,000 amateur radio operators, according to the MARS Web site.
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) could be another fallback, Lyon says. You can pick up a pair of radios with a 12-mile range for about $35 at Best Buy.
“Dot” radios could serve “as a backup to your backup’s backup,” says telecom manager Ken Steinhoff, who navigated Palm Beach Newspapers through several hurricanes. While the FCC limits where other types of radios can operate – Steinhoff has a license to run a two-way radio within 20 miles of his office – dot radios run on “itinerate” frequencies and can be used anywhere. These radios have a line-of-sight range that you could expect to extend a couple blocks in an urban setting, Steinhoff says. (