Disaster Communication for First Responders

Updated: Apr 23

Having effective emergency communications during a disaster is critical for every first responder and anyone involved in Emergency Management. With an average of 100 declared disasters across the U.S. annually, every community should have reliable back up communications systems for their first responders and emergency response personnel when disaster strikes; however, very few do.

Back up Communication during a disaster is of paramount importance.

History has repeatedly shown that many communities have been devastated and caught off guard by not foreseeing how vulnerable their first responder communication systems were to a disaster. Many first responders from disaster events will attest how they suddenly and rapidly found themselves in extreme conditions with greatly compromised communications systems. The loss of their most critical communications systems, just when they needed them most, created a multitude of cascading events which greatly magnified the devastation far beyond the initial disaster itself.

In order to foresee how these events would impact communications, one has to think in ways that are not natural for most of us as it is more natural for us to think the best will happen. In more recent years, the threat profile we must plan for even at the local level has increased dramatically from what it was just 5-10 years ago. The broad risks and hazards you must plan for (and the potential impact to your most critical communications systems) is far greater than ever and includes a multitude of scenarios that can rapidly devastate your community. Understanding the true breadth of the “Disaster Threat Profile” is critical for Emergency Managers who are responsible for first responder disaster communications.

1. Large scale extended emergencies and disasters that come in an instant and without any warning. These events can rapidly devolve into shifting public sentiment where large groups take negative actions against agencies, institutions and

Emergency back up communication must function when infrastructure fails.

infrastructure; resulting in large scale public panic on a local, regional, or national level.

2. Disasters, both man-made and natural, that can completely wipe out any community’s infrastructure, including: roads, the power grid, network systems and critical communications systems. Every region of the country has its own version of a “hurricane”. Thinking a “hurricane” level disaster can’t happen in your community places first responders and your community at risk.

3. Increased risk of terrorism from bad actors both foreign and domestic, that can occur at any level of our society at any time. These events are frequently occurring at the national, state, local, county and municipal levels; and are also occurring in record numbers in almost any venue you can think of: concerts, schools, shopping centers, or anywhere there is a public gathering.

4. Nuclear, chemical, biological attack, an electro-magnetic event- (solar or intentional EMP), and cyber-attack. While the risk of these events may seem to be low, in actuality the risk has never been higher. The threat of a cyber or an electro-magnetic event alone has the very real potential to take down our entire national power grid, infrastructure and financial systems.

5. Far away global events that can rapidly evolve and impact our local communities, placing tremendous stresses on our emergency response and healthcare systems and our economy in ways nobody can imagine. This is one disaster we all have experienced directly with the recent pandemic.

Loss of critical first responder communication is the main problem often cited for creating cascading events in nearly every major disaster. Loss of critical emergency communications, particularly at the first responder level creates an

Effective disaster communication is the first step to ensuring success.

“operational fog” resulting in reduced Situational Awareness at all levels of the response. This knowledge vacuum leads to a loss of effective Command and Control, which greatly magnifies the disaster’s impact.

The strategies of the past simply don’t work anymore because the threat profile we face today is so much broader. Examining what has happened historically for the most significant disaster events actually gives us the best perspective and framework to work with. We need to begin with the understanding and assumption that a disaster will cause great communication system failure in order to build resilient first responder disaster communications.

1. Your community will lose critical infrastructure including roads and ease of access to the most critical nerve centers of the event. Your first responders’ and the public depending on them will have a much more delayed response than expected. This delayed response will create a back log that will overwhelm all of your first responders and will also shape the public’s perception of the situation.

2. That you will lose power and critical network systems that you depend on and you will lose your “normal” means of communications. At best, your first responder communications will be greatly compromised and your response operations will be severely hampered. Losing your main lines of communications will affect you and your community in ways you never could have imagined.

3. “Help” will arrive much latter than you think, and full restoration will take much longer than you thought. The adjacent communities you could normally count on for back up support will also be affected by the disaster and unable to render assistance. “Help” may be on the way, but it could be at least a week, or much longer.

4. You will need to maintain sustained operations throughout the response period with whatever back-up communications you already have in place.

So why do emergency communications systems fail so often during a disaster? Simply

put, most first responder communications systems are interdependent systems. An “interdependent” system is any system that depends on any other system in order to function. Any strategy involving operational or back-up communication systems that are interdependent with any form of infrastructure puts your first responder communications at risk. These interdependent systems are the systems that most often fail during a disaster because they are only as good as their weakest link.

1. Any system that depends on any form of the grid, including commercial power, or any

Destroyed roads can hamper traditional mobile command centers

form of network - including cellular networks, the internet and tower and repeater systems.

2. Any system that depends on roads (i.e., mobile command centers, mobile command vehicles, mobile communication vehicles), or that type of support from outside of the community.

3. Any system that depends on fossil fuel like generators (note: generators also depend on roads for refueling)

4. Any system that cannot be isolated from the grid or isolated from networks systems.

In a disaster, you need a communications system that does not have any of the above interdependencies. You need a portable communications solution that is not dependent on any infrastructure whatsoever, including roads or other external systems in order to provide reliable first responder emergency communications. SemperComm® (“Always Communications”) is the ideal communication solution for first responder disaster communications. SemperComm® is designed for rapid deployment for critical incidents and is the system you can count on for any situation you encounter.

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