Is There a Solution to the Problem of Communications in Natural Disasters?

Yossi Segal  |

On April 26th, we witnessed a devastating earthquake hit Nepal, taking over 5,000 lives. We all know that in such disaster-stricken areas, the first 24-48 hours are crucial to saving lives and assessing the situation. We also know that as with Nepal all phone, cellular and internet infrastructures have been hit hard, leaving aid workers to scrabble around with handwritten messages. The international Red Cross and leading companies like Google, Inc. (GOOG) and Facebook, Inc. (FB) have tried to provide tools that help connect people and rescue teams.  However, large-scale power outages and last-mile Internet connectivity problems prevent nearly all connection between dispersed rescue teams, people, family members and aid workers. Communications becomes a vital means of life-saving efforts and critical decision making, without which no massive or significant rescues can take place. There are several communications infrastructures available today however the question is how do they perform in critical situations such as natural disasters and to what extend can we rely on them? 

In a disaster-stricken area like Nepal, one of the biggest communication obstacles is rubble -- especially in urban environment such as Kathmandu. Crumbled buildings and densely populated areas (in communications terms referred to as N-LOS (non-line of sight) areas). When buildings collapse, the high mountains of rubble obstruct any line of sight, thus blocking almost any means of communications.

Another important concern in disaster stricken areas is the need for a stable communications network. This allows for multiple people to communicate from multiple locations and sources. Rescue teams and local forces need to communicate with each other, and with local headquarters, as well as calling for additional backup units and warning people of dangers and aftershocks.

The most common communication infrastructure that we’ve all become dependent on is the cellular or mobile infrastructure. Mobile infrastructure unfortunately is the first to collapse in times of disaster and immediately becomes unviable. Furthermore, when people divert to cellular communication modes, with their constant power outages, they don't have the power to charge their batteries. This makes communication unreliable in yet another way.

Most communications systems are designed to provide point-to-point communications with voice capabilities only, meaning they likely will not be able to overcome N-LOS scenarios.

TETRA, for instance, formerly known as (Trans-European Trunked Radio) is a mobile radio and two-way transceiver communication mode, also known by its common name as walkie-talkie. TETRA was specifically designed for public safety use. TETRA provides a limited point –to-point voice communications between only two people. Overcoming natural disaster events requires full communications networks to manage multiple dispatch units, rescue teams and search crews from both land and air. Such mass missions and tasks require a robust and scalable communications network that’s capable of supporting all relevant crews and rescue teams – something that TETRA is not designed to do.

Today more than ever, real-time video has great impact and contribution to assessing situations and understand the scope of events within this turmoil and chaos environment. The ability to send live video from onsite locations is critical. COFDM communications technology enables video transfer and may even overcome some N-LOS challenges; however, as with most communication systems, COFDM mostly provides a one-way point-to-point video only communications, and is not designed to deliver a scalable communications network.

So is Reliable Communication a Lost Cause?

So the question remains – is stable, reliable communications network a lost cause in disaster situations? The answer is no. Today, more and more organizations, governments and public safety offices are becoming aware of the following terms: Mission-Critical-Communications and MESH technology. These often deliver communications abilities by creating a private communication network, usually without the need for existing communications infrastructure.

There are a few MESH based communications solutions out there. MESH technology refers to a radio based private communications network where all units are connected to each other and can act as backup to other units in the network. This ensures connectivity, even in extremely harsh conditions. MESH technology delivers HD video, data and voice in real-time, and can receive and broadcast the information from and to multiple locations and sources.  The network also finds the best route for transmitting all the information and operates regardless of any existing communications infrastructure.

With a high performance Ad-Hoc MESH technology communications solution, first responders, emergency services, crews and forces communicate as a unified workforce immediately upon arrival at scene. This makes the first 24-48 hours that are crucial to saving lives much more effective, with a powerful response rate and situation assessment.

Receiving HD video, data and VoIP from multiple sources, directly to a command mobile unit post expands the scope of field and the information available to make critical decisions in real time. It also often dictates the success of rescue efforts and support for the people in the area.

We have seen the same challenges in Nepal, during Super Storm Sandy and various other natural disasters. In each case, governments and organizations are becoming more aware of the need for a reliable communications infrastructure. While we cannot control Mother Nature, we can certainly adapt – and MESH technology does just that.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:


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