Is your emergency communications system vulnerable?

Updated: Jun 4

Nation Wide Vulnerabilities to U.S. Emergency Communications Systems

Emergency Communications (EMCOMMs) are the systems we depend on everyday across the U.S. for emergencies and disasters. These vital systems provide critical communications for coordinating emergency response resources to include: public safety, law enforcement, and emergency responders. Emergency Communications Systems are used to communicate across agencies and jurisdictions for proper Coordination, Command and Control and situational awareness of vital response resources. These systems are also used to provide communications to the public for proper public awareness, for public safety and to maintain civil order.

We all know that these communications systems are critical for emergencies and disasters and without these systems we cannot execute our mission. We all depend on these systems for emergencies that occur every day across the U.S., and for large scale emergencies and disaster events such as terrorism, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other hazards, (both natural and man-made). These vital communications systems that we all depend on for emergencies and event management are highly vulnerable to breakdown and often fail to meet mission needs when stressed.

Our emergency communications systems can be rendered completely inoperable in an instant due to damage to the command centers themselves, damage to supporting infrastructure, damage to the power grid, damage to networks and cellular systems, and damage to other critical infrastructure that serve as the vital links for these systems. This presents many challenges as we must be prepared for an ever-increasing and rapidly evolving threat profile to protect the communities we serve. The solution for the ideal communications system that will ensure communications no matter the situation or hazard is not an easy problem to solve.

This is because the breadth of threats and hazards that we must contend with has become nearly infinite in recent years. In addition to the every-day (“blue/gray sky”) hazards we must prepare for, the broader threat profile of events that once seemed improbable (“black sky” events) are now past experiences that most of us as emergency response professionals have already dealt with on some level. The potential for all of these threats to occur or reoccur at any time on our watch has never been higher.

The threats where we must have no fail emergency communications include:

  • Large scale extended emergencies and disasters;

  • Increased risk of terrorism from bad actors at all levels;

  • Broad scale emergencies that can rapidly devolve into public panic;

  • Rapidly shifting public sentiment where large groups take negative actions against agencies and institutions;

  • Daily cyber assaults on our vital information systems and financial systems that could rapidly cascade and negatively impact key elements depended on nationwide;

  • Far away global events that can rapidly evolve and impact our local communities (i.e., pandemics)

  • The threat of a cyber/electro-magnetic event that has the very real potential to take down our entire grid and infrastructure

The typical response to shore up communications for these types of threats consists of two primary strategies:

  • Heavy investment in expensive Mobile Command Center Vehicles or Mobile Communication Vehicles (MCV) to serve as back-up systems for large scale emergencies or disasters.

  • Excessive dependency on infrastructure centric back-up systems that often fail to meet mission needs. This includes network systems, repeater systems, VHF/UHF line of site public safety communications systems, satellite telephones, cellular systems, back-up generators and other systems that require some form of infrastructure in order to function to meet mission needs.

Yet, history has shown us over and over again that these approaches for Emergency Communications (EMCOMM) often fall short for large scale emergency and disaster events. Many large-scale emergencies, including: hurricanes, earth quakes, wildfires, snow storms and pandemics make guarantee of mission failure nearly certain if we are using the above two strategies for our emergency communications systems.

The events of Hurricanes Katrina and Maria as well as other events serve as perfect case studies for seeing how emergency communications breaks down during large scale emergency and disaster events. Communication failures during large scale events are well documented and serve as a realistic and highly probable illustration of what happens in these types of events. The ineffectiveness of response authorities (at all levels-Federal, State, Local) largely due to failures of the above communication contingency strategies, nearly always leads to the complete breakdown of Command, Control and Communications and to large scale civil unrest.

In these types situations, we fail to fulfill our mission functions because of the wide-scale lack of situational awareness and the inability to communicate across the needed lines of authority and jurisdictions. When authorities, (Local, State and Federal) are unable to communicate due to wide scale communications system failures, typically involving a highly compromised or devastated power grid, devastated network systems and infrastructure that is completely wiped out (including roads), the effective window for Command and Control is lost during the first 72 hours. Cascading events occur and civil unrest and anarchy soon follows. This is the anatomy of every-large scale emergency and disaster event, yet we keep employing the above strategies since we know of no other solution for communications. However, there is another way to ensure we will always have robust communications capability for every emergency situation we encounter and meet the mission needs for the people counting on us.

Learn more.

Copyright 02/02/21 by SemperComm