A field technician for a utility company looks at his rugged tablet while in a lift truck bucket.
By Bob Ashenbrenner | October 09, 2019

Governments’ Emergency Response Plans are Only Effective If Emergency Responders Have the Means to Execute Them

Coordination between first and second responders requires constant communications, which requires reliable communications technology. But not all mobile devices can weather the storm, causing even the best-laid plans to fall apart in the aftermath.

Hurricane season is upon us, and several named tropical storms have already hit populated areas this year. Over the past few years, a number of hurricanes have severely impacted parts of the U.S., including Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and of course New Orleans. If you’ve ever resided in a hurricane’s path, you know the anxiety can be intense and the aftermath devastating – even if you didn’t take the direct hit. The rains and winds of the outer bands alone can cause tides to swell, shorelines to erode and tall trees and structures to topple, damaging powerlines.

See, I live in Ocean City, New Jersey, one of the barrier islands along the South Jersey coast. Only 11,000 residents on six square miles – in the off season. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the population swells to as many as 250,000 people; every bed and sofa in this small town is full.

Geographically, the barrier island is three feet above high tide. It is part of Cape May County: five barrier islands in front of a narrow peninsula with the Delaware Bay on the west side. There is one major highway that runs north-south – the Garden State Parkway. During the summer, Cape May County has over 750,000 people, most of which would need to evacuate on the Parkway should a storm head our way. The Parkway is already very clogged on Saturday change-over day (most renters are Saturday to Saturday) on a typical weekend; the thought of a mass evacuation would add many hours to a typical clogged roadway, which makes everything more dangerous.

So, after Hurricane Katrina, I decided to find out my community’s hurricane preparedness plan. I went to the Clerk’s office in City Hall and asked to see the Emergency Plan. It took them a while to figure out if Ocean City (OC) had one for the public to view, and once confirmed that one existed, who had it on file. I learned that a detective with the OC Police Department had led the effort to develop the plan, so I went to see him. During my visit, I had the impression that I was the first civilian to ask about the plan, though he was more than happy to oblige my inquiry. In fact, I think he welcomed the interest in our local government’s efforts to protect the well-being of its citizens and the City as a whole.

What I found was a very well-thought-out plan complete with great detail on everything important, including where the New Jersey National Guard would be stationed, the evacuation and sheltering of vulnerable populations, contra-flow on the highway and the deployment of three different command posts. (If the first couldn’t be used, they’d move to a hardened building on the peninsula. If that was affected, then a third location further inland was ready.) The plan even articulated which radios and frequencies would be used for each type of first responder to ensure they could maintain communications during these coordinated emergency preparedness and response efforts, including police, fire, EMS and others.

And, of course, all the first responder organizations drill on the response. This was refreshing to see. What good is an emergency response plan if you’re not able to effectively put it into action, after all?

Coordination between First Responders is the Key to Controlling the Chaos…

There is an extreme level of coordination and communication that must occur between government agencies – and even the public and private sector – during any type of emergency response, whether due to a natural disaster or an act of terrorism. Otherwise, chaos will just ensue despite the government’s best-laid emergency preparedness and response plans.

Consider the contra-flow evacuation plan outlined by Ocean City officials in the case of a hurricane. There are 16 municipalities in Cape May County, about half on the barrier islands and the rest on the peninsula. All need to be coordinated in order to make the southbound lanes of the Garden State Parkway run northbound to flow traffic toward safety and prevent anyone from entering the evacuation zone before a storm. Fortunately for me and my neighbors, the actions that each emergency management agency in each individual jurisdiction would have to take to pull off this massive traffic pattern shift has been thoroughly planned; as are the communication methods they will each use to collectively execute this plan to protect tens of thousands of people – possibly hundreds of thousands – that are all forced to flee the area at once in a very short period of time.

I was even more relieved to see that the communications plan has been consistently updated as technology has advanced over the years. Perhaps that’s why, during Superstorm Sandy, first responders performed effectively and with remarkable professionalism.

A late October storm, evacuation of tourists wasn’t an issue during Sandy. Although everything else planned for was needed, including the evacuation and sheltering of vulnerable parties and, after the storm, a massive recovery effort.

Superstorm Sandy made landfall just north of Atlantic City. With a 23-mile-wide eye wall, the eye passed over the northern half of Ocean City. The island on which Ocean City resides was entirely under water during the worst of the storm, except for a couple of intersections. Protective dunes were washed away during the full moon high tide, and houses had water throughout their lower floors. Despite the ferocity of the storm, there were fortunately no fatalities in Cape May County.

The first responders’ planning and subsequent communication and coordination had been up to the task. That can be credited, at least in part, to the fact that their communication devices worked when not much else did. However, there have been many other cities that weren’t so lucky in the aftermath of a disaster. For example, some disaster relief crews dispatched to Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey were relying on satellite-based Android™ rugged tablets such as the Thorium X to stay in contact because they couldn’t afford a critical communications breakdown amidst the downed power lines and telecom networks.

That’s why contentment around a successful operation can be costly, especially in emergency management. You should never assume that what worked this time, whether a plan or the technology used to execute that plan, will work perfectly again the next time.

Government officials in Cape May County – and Ocean City, in particular – understand this.

Coordinated Responses Require Constant Communications – and Reliable Communications Technology. That’s Where Second Responders (and Smart Technology Procurements) Come In...

My hometown started preparing for the “next storm” soon after Hurricane Sandy blew through. And those preparations continue to this day, led primarily by the “second responders”: utilities, transportation providers and others responsible for quickly restoring services and hardening infrastructure for the next storm.

One of their primary objectives? Shoring up the phone lines, power grid and other infrastructure that deliver first responders’ communication and coordination capabilities.

For example, on telephone poles about every third block, Small Cellular Solutions (SCS) nodes were installed for three reasons:

1.       More “towers” with overlapping coverage increases the chances that wireless service remains available even if many of the nodes are destroyed in a storm;

2.       Wireless networks can be made available for exclusive use by first and second responders with “priority and pre-emption” status during emergencies, such as municipal government agencies and their partners; and

3.       A much higher network capacity is needed to handle the surge of voice and data communications that occurs ahead of a storm, especially when a population of 11,000 swells to 250,000.

Communication is that important.

In other areas along the Jersey Shore, the electrical grid has been hardened and reclosers have been added throughout the islands so that a downed line doesn’t risk an entire grid blackout. Now, if a power line or transformer fails, only a few homes should be affected. These upgrades also help Atlantic City Electric find damaged lines quickly, which helps to reduce the risk of injury due to shock from an exposed line and expedite service restoration.

Hurricane Sandy also made it evident that residential natural gas services needed a major upgrade. The natural gas regulators outside each home were under seawater – and corrosion on gas line fittings isn’t tolerable. As technicians with the local gas company examined each home, they realized that they also had to either raise the vent lines above the level of the next flood or replace gas regulator vent lines with newer-generation Vent Line Protectors (VLP) that function even if under water. These essential vents are rarely needed. But during the flooding after Sandy, most vents had seawater rising above them. It was smart of this utility to proactively replace them. Even smarter, at least in my opinion, is the mobile technology they gave their technicians to guide the installations.

What’s especially noteworthy about this VLP installation project is the utility’s choice of technology tools for their field service technicians: Xplore F5 rugged tablets, which were the predecessors to the current-generation Zebra XPAD™ L10 rugged tablets. Why does the gas company’s mobile device selection matter in this case?

Not only are there thousands of homes with natural gas service, but the vast majority are unoccupied during the off season. The local gas company had to coordinate their service tickets, trucks and supplies to ensure that every property was inspected and upgraded. In many cases, taller vent pipes were enough to get the vents above flood water level. In other cases, upgraded VLPs were needed. That meant that GIS map overlays were used, coordinated with work orders, and notes were needed for exception cases to document progress and inform asset inspection and management actions longer term. And, of course, everything plays together in the communication spectrum – those rugged tablets used by these second responder field technicians were connected via the SCS nodes installed throughout the islands, which ensured they had the information needed to quickly get to the right place with the right equipment and perform the right service actions when they were there.

Just another reason why reliable communications technology is key, whether responding to an emergency or everyday service call. But that often begs the question…

Who makes the call on which communications technologies emergency responders should use, especially if these same devices will likely be used for everyday activities?

That’s a great question, and one I’ll dig into more next week here on Your Edge.


Editor’s Note: Tune back into the blog next week for the second part of Bob’s post. He’ll answer the critical question above, offering advice on how you can ensure that “responder” will have a mobile computer – whether a tablet or handheld – that will work no matter what obstacles may be challenging traditional wireless communication channels.

Field Operations, Public Sector,
Bob Ashenbrenner
Bob Ashenbrenner

Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC, under the direction of Bob Ashenbrenner, works with Zebra Technologies to develop future-proof mobility solutions for customers across multiple field service and industrial sectors. As an industry consultant, Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC, is focused on optimizing rugged tablet-based solutions for mobile workers of all kinds, including utility and public safety professionals. Ashenbrenner is particularly committed to helping customers identify mobile devices that survive a tough work day, run all the software and tools needed today, and will remain flexible and scalable to adapt to evolving technology applications as business needs dictate.

Ashenbrenner has more than 25 years of computer engineering and engineering management experience, with 18 of those specific to mobility and the field requirements that enable real work to happen. He was previously a Solutions Architect with Xplore Technologies and Motion Computing for 13 years. In that role, Ashenbrenner led the development of a suite of rugged mobile tablet computer, services and software, with an emphasis on supporting the whole mobile work environment.

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