Telecommunications Infrastructures in Disasters: Preparing Cities for Crisis Communications

Originally published



The breakdown of essential communications is one of the most widely shared characteristics of all disasters. Whether partial or complete, the failure of telecommunications infrastructure leads to preventable loss of life and damage to property, by causing delays and errors in emergency response and disaster relief efforts.
Yet despite the increasing reliability and resiliency of modern telecommunications networks to physical damage, the risk associated with communications failures remains serious because of growing dependence upon these tools in emergency operations.

The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 highlighted the human cost of communications breakdowns during disasters. While seismic monitoring stations throughout the world detected the massive sub-sea earthquake that triggered the tsunami, a lack of procedures for communicating these warnings to governments and inadequate infrastructure in the regions at risk delayed the transmission of warnings.

Yet, based on the successful evacuation of the handful of communities that did receive adequate warning through unofficial channels, it is clear that better communications could have saved tens or hundreds of thousands of lives.

In the failure to communicate warnings about the impending deluge, news media accounts emphasized the lack of preparation, poor quality of telecommunications infrastructure and geographic isolation of the affected communities as factors.

However, as urban disasters over the last decade have shown, even in the most developed economies, catastrophic events routinely overwhelm communications grids. In fact, in these settings the sheer variety and complexity of network infrastructure and the far greater needs and expectations of victims and responders increases the likelihood that any single system may fail. Communications failures in New York City on September 11 contributed directly to the loss of at least 300 firefighters.34 In the 1995 earthquake that struck Kobe, Japan, communications failures prevented outsiders from receiving timely information about the severity of damage. These communications breakdowns delayed relief efforts for days, stranding tens of thousands of homeless victims outdoors in freezing winter weather.

However, modern telecommunications infrastructure has also provided powerful and flexible tools to enable cities to cope with crisis, and quickly relocate and restore displaced or disrupted social and economic activities. The Internet, mobile telephony, and satellite communications provide unprecedented communications capabilities to a wide range of institutions and communities in disaster areas.

This report establishes a framework for understanding the interaction between large urban disasters and telecommunications infrastructure, drawing upon the experiences of the 1990s and 2000s. While the majority of past research on telecommunications in disasters has focused on the emergency response phase, this article analyzes the critical role of communications infrastructure in all of phases of disaster prevention and recovery, which can stretch for years after the event. Finally, this report does not focus only on official communications channels, but is concerned with the entire universe of civil telecommunications infrastructure that plays a crucial role in crisis communications.

This report is organized in the following manner. First, it describes how telecommunication infrastructure fails during urban disasters, based on available evidence from several well-documented disasters of the 1990s and 2000s. Then, it examines the role of telecommunications infrastructure, and the consequences of failure, during four key phases of post-disaster recovery: emergency response, restoration and repair, reconstruction, and re-development. It concludes by outlining three areas in which urban telecommunications infrastructure and disaster communications practices can be strengthened to increase their effectiveness in future disasters.

Current domestic preparedness efforts are almost exclusively focused on improving the reliability, capability, and interoperability of official communications systems.
However, as we argue in the following section, the full recovery of cities is a multistage effort, in which emergency response is only one brief phase. This analysis therefore focuses instead primarily on civil telecommunications infrastructure, which plays a critical role in all phases of disaster recovery - including emergency response.