The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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June 17, 2012

FCC proposes emergency use of blimps, drones, weather balloons after disasters

JOPLIN, Mo. — For Beverly Oakes, the cellphone tower that stood about 70 feet from her home at the Plaza Apartments went from being a landmark to a lawn ornament after it was thrown into the building in the May 22, 2011, tornado.

“It looked like crumpled spaghetti,” said Oakes, whose apartment on Rex Avenue was a complete loss.

For Oakes, and other Joplin residents who were scrambling to contact friends and family after the storm, cellphone service was spotty at best the night of the disaster and into the following days. Text messaging was the most reliable form of communication in the immediate aftermath.

But a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission could improve communication after a disaster. The FCC is working on a project that would send emergency communications equipment into the air via drones, weather balloons or blimps after natural disasters when ground communication systems are lost.

The technology already is being used by the military, according to the FCC.

“We’re involved in a number of disaster responses, and that includes things as significant as Katrina or Haiti down to smaller events,” said Jennifer Manner, deputy chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

“It may be difficult to drive in a cell tower on wheels because the roads may be flooded. There may be limited access into an area if it’s been limited to first responders. The question is, ‘How do you get devices up?’ So we’re looking at a way to get them in using airborne platforms.”

After the Joplin tornado, the FCC received updates once or twice a day from telecommunication companies about the status of their service and worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on restoring communications.

According to an FCC report, the goal would be to have the communications equipment into the disaster area within the first 12 to 18 hours. The idea is that the equipment in the air may be more accessible since it would not be blocked by debris or water on the ground.

The FCC, a mostly policy-driven organization, would coordinate with FEMA and the Federal Aviation Administration. They would work with private companies to actually deploy the equipment.

Would it have helped Joplin?

Mark Morris, information systems director for the city of Joplin, thinks the concept is interesting, but he is unsure how such a system would have affected communications in Joplin after the tornado.

“Thinking back on Joplin, and knowing that we had severe weather for the next 24 to 36 hours after the tornado, I’m not sure how well it would have worked,” Morris said.

Keith Stammer, emergency manager for Joplin and Jasper County, said he thinks the airborne proposal may be a good strategy. But he said he has many questions about the project, such as how much bandwidth it would provide, whether it would be reserved for just emergency responders and whether the disaster would have to be officially declared.

“If the feds were able to bring in drones or blimps with sufficient bandwidth, it would be a great help in communities in a disaster,” said Stammer, who advocates having several communication methods available as backup, such as land lines, cellphones and even ham radio.

“We used every one of those that we possibly could,” he said.

Carrier impact, response

“I was humbled and impressed with how quickly all of the carriers responded,” said Morris, who met with representatives from all the major phone carriers within the first 12 hours of the tornado. “They all pulled out all the stops and recognized the magnitude of the crisis.”

Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Brenda Hill said that of the carrier’s 32 towers in Joplin, only one, near the Home Depot, was destroyed. The main issue was power supply and cut fibers. The company brought in two or three temporary towers after the storm to help, and it never had a total outage, Hill said.

Crystal Davis, crisis communication manager for Sprint, said the company lost two towers but was able to get portable cell towers and an emergency response team to Joplin immediately after the storm.

“We handled the situation as immediately as we could,” Davis said.

Katie Nagus, with media relations for AT&T, said the carrier lost two towers and was back up to 95 percent capacity about 37 hours after the storm.

But Mike Haynes, who works in external affairs for AT&T, said that wasn’t enough considering the number of volunteers who rushed to Joplin. The company sent in several portable towers. Land lines for the company also were affected. Those land lines, Haynes said, have an impact on cellular calls as well.

“You need that backbone to support that wireless network,” he said.

Haynes said the reason most people had some service, like text messaging, is because it takes up less space on the network and does not have to be in real time.

“If the network is congested, it can hold itself in queue until space is available,” he said. “That allows texting to sometimes be a really powerful tool in those circumstances where you have a lot of congestion.”

By the Friday after the Sunday storm, AT&T had installed 18,000 feet of fiber cable and 10,000 feet of copper wiring, and had it in service. The company also lost a large aerial fiber system that ran north and south near St. John’s Regional Medical Center and that served Freeman Hospital West. That was a priority, Haynes said.

Phone service

AT&T is still rebuilding the land-line network as Joplin rebuilds in the tornado destruction zone.

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