Craig Fugate: Emergency communications will be the next challenge of COVID-19

Craig Fugate: Emergency communications will be the next challenge of COVID-19

During my time as President Obama's administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), we coordinated the response to multiple record-breaking disasters. But the COVID-19 crisis is challenging the United States' emergency response resources in a much more profound way. Never have our federal and state agencies faced a national crisis of this scale, affecting all 50 states simultaneously for a period of several months. 

As summer approaches, we will now face increasing threats that are, on their own, already enough to strain emergency response systems. Hurricane season begins soon in the Gulf and Atlantic, and we can count on wildfires and tornadoes wreaking their annual havoc across the southern and western United States. Responding to these disasters while still mitigating the threat of COVID-19 will require new solutions.

As ventilators, tests, and personal protective equipment flood our newsfeeds, we can't forget the basic need underlying any disaster response: communications. The ability to quickly and reliably exchange information is something that we take for granted in the modern world, but it's often one of the first casualties in a disaster. 

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According to the Federal Communications Commission, 77 percent of cell sites were not functional a full month after Hurricane Maria's landfall in Puerto Rico in 2017, for example, while up to 50 percent of cell sites in the Florida panhandle went down during Hurricane Michael in 2018. During the California wildfires last year, over 200 cell towers were lost.

 
When communications break down during a disaster response, chaos follows. Supplies of food, water, and protective gear, badly needed in an area only a few miles away, might get left to linger on pallets for days. Teams waste scarce time on overlapping search and rescue missions, and medical responses get hopelessly tangled.

Throughout the United States today, state and local governments are already managing unprecedented demands for testing sites and mass feeding operations. Any efforts to house and protect citizens during a hurricane, for example, will have to take social distancing protocols into account and the influx of new personnel necessary to establish and monitor those protocols.

Even in the best of circumstances, our national disaster response communications are limited. We often simply do not have enough equipment to go around. Radios are expensive to purchase and maintain from a technical standpoint, but also time-intensive to implement and train responders. Different jurisdictions have different systems, and a regular challenge of any emergency incident is interoperability — getting those systems, and the people who rely on them, to talk to each other. Existing communications infrastructure, like cell phone networks and wifi, can fail when emergency responders need it most.

We've also broadened the definition of who we consider essential first responders: truck drivers, medical personnel, restaurant owners, and, most of all, volunteers. The individuals helping at test stations and food distribution centers are vital in managing our pandemic response safely and successfully. Until recently, emergency management professionals have viewed these "spontaneous" volunteers as bugs in the system. Volunteers are one of our greatest strengths as a nation. Still, they often lack the technical communications skills and equipment needed to coordinate with trained first responders. 

As emergency management organizations look to leverage volunteers and local supply chains more than ever before, we need to embrace the reality that smartphones — not radios — are the common denominator for the "new" emergency management workforce. But we also need to make sure that they work. 

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In the absence of cellular service or internet, relatively cheap mesh networking devices can enable every frontline responder to maintain contact with each other using text messages and maps. With the download of an app, we can solve one of the most persistent problems in emergency management.

Certainly, new mesh networking tools won't solve every communications challenge. Sometimes there's no substitute for a phone conversation or a face-to-face meeting, and emergency responders still need to use the two-way radios they train on to coordinate the response. But we do know that we need a redundant layer of reliable communications that can be accessed by even the greenest volunteer with a smartphone. And we need it fast, as a potentially record-breaking disaster season gets underway. 

The unique complexities of responding to COVID-19 and secondary disasters will be with us until we have a vaccine, and long after. I hope that this is a nationwide wake-up call to update our emergency communications framework in a way that will save countless lives. And that the "new normal" for disaster response communications will be the smartphone.

Craig Fugate served as head of FEMA during the Obama administration and director of Florida Division of Emergency Management. He is currently a senior advisor at BlueDot Strategies where he consults for goTenna, a mesh networking technology company. He recently published a white paper titled "Disaster Response Communications in the age of COVID-19."