Emergency Communications a Year After Boston Bombing
The Marathon bombing raised various wireless issues, from rumors of a government "kill switch" on the network, to how to gain priority service.
We recently observed the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing (April 15, 2013). That event raised various wireless issues, from rumors of a government "kill switch" on the network, to how to gain priority service.
Did Verizon (and Other Wireless Providers) Shut Down Their Networks?
In the aftermath of the Boston explosions, cell phone service went "down" in many parts of the metro area. This prompted rumors that the local authorities forced the wireless vendors to shut down their networks. After all, there was a legitimate concern that the explosive devices were set off remotely using cell phones. And after two bombs exploded, how many other bombs were out there? (Note--the bombing was not actually detonated using a cell phone. Rather, it was triggered by a toy car remote control switch.)
So these were merely rumors. It turned out that the problem with the cell network was simply congestion, too many people trying to use their cell phones to call others (see the Rush Hour on "Steroids" section below). There was no government mandated shut down of the cellular networks.
Does the Government Have a "Kill Switch" to Shut Down an Area's Cell Network?
In April 2011, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) district shut down cell networks at some of their stations. There were a series of protests (over a shooting of a passenger) taking place at specific stations (closing down the stations & disrupting service). BART invoked public safety as justification to shut down cell service. The protesters were supposedly using their cell phones to coordinate the next station to protest.
There was blowback from this action, and BART agreed not to invoke this policy in the future. However, this does bring up the question, does the government have the authority to shut down a wireless network? The answer is that, while there is obviously no single "switch" that the government can throw to unilaterally bring down a wireless network, there has been contingency planning in the event of a need for a government-initiated shutdown of the network(s). National Communications System's Standard Operating Procedure 303 is understood as "a shutdown and restoration process for use by commercial and private wireless networks during national crises." There is controversy and confusion over this topic (i.e. debates over whether this infringes on free speech). In the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, however, no "kill switch" order was given.
Rush Hour on "Steroids"
How often have you received a busy signal (or no signal) during rush hour? The cellular networks are designed to meet a certain level of capacity, and wireless carriers try to balance the peak (rush hour) needs with minimizing their costs (i.e. # of cell towers, equipment, resources, etc.). The result is good availability during non-peak hours, but spotty availability during peak (rush) hours.
During rush hour, you may have 20 to 30% of subscribers using their cell phones (and getting occasional busy signals). Now imagine a scenario in which 75 to 90% of subscribers are trying to use their cell phone (like in the immediate aftermath of a bombing). And remember, it is not just people trying to call outbound, but others who are calling into the cellular network where the incident took place. Your friends, family, co-workers, associates from all around the country (and world) are calling to people they know in Boston. Thus, for each person trying to call out on their cell phone (from Boston), there can be several other people trying to call in. Added together, this creates massive network congestion.
Wireless Priority Service ("Elite Queue")
The U.S. Government has set up a Wireless Priority Service (WPS) to allow high-priority emergency users to gain better access to the cellular network.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, WPS users were able to gain Wireless Voice access by dialing (from their pre-approved cell phone):
* + 272 + Destination Phone Number + "Send"
WPS does not interrupt other calls. Rather, when a call (slot) frees up, they get priority over others. It is similar to waiting in line at an airline check-in counter. The WPS line is the "Elite" queue. When a position (call slot) opens up, the service takes the next person in the WPS (Elite) queue--and as long as there are WPS users in queue, they will always gain priority over General Public users.
Wireless Priority Service Requirements
In order to receive WPS on your cell phone, you need to complete an application and be approved. There are 5 categories of authorized users:
• Executive Leadership & Policy Makers (President & Congress)
• Disaster Response Personnel and Military Command and Control
• Public Health, Safety and Law Enforcement
• Public Service, Utilities and Public Welfare
• Disaster Recovery
Several of our clients (Hospital, Hospice, Health Care segments) have applied and been approved for WPS. The monthly cost is usually $4.50 per phone per month, although some states' wireless carrier agreements may reduce or waive the monthly fee.
Rather than try to call someone during these high-congestion times, here are some ideas that have proven helpful:
• Email--If you have access to the Internet, use the data network, which is unaffected by the Voice/Cellular network traffic
• Text--Messages can be queued up and delivered as capacity becomes available
• Twitter--Provides widespread information sharing quickly
• Google Person Finder--A Centralized Digital Bulletin Board for survivors, participants, family, friends, etc.
• GETS--Government Emergency Telephone System--The Landline counterpart to WPS
• Pay Phones--Landlines will also have similar congestion, however, pay phones will receive High Priority
Be Prepared: Disaster Recovery
Most companies have Disaster Recovery plans. However, not all disasters are the same. There are certain "types" of disasters, each with their own unique challenges:
• Sudden & Widespread (Terrorist Attack, Earthquake, Tsunami, Biological/Chemical)--Disasters that are unforeseen, with virtually no time to prepare. It affects a large area.
• Sudden & Localized (Train Derailment, Plant Explosions, School Shooting, Fires)--Sudden, however more localized.
• Known & Widespread (Hurricanes, Large Snowstorms, Volcanic Eruptions, Floods)--Generally there are minutes/hours/days warning, so some preparation can be done (evacuation, staging of supplies).
• Known & Localized (Tornados, Fog)--Some preparation can be done, within a relatively small area.
On both a professional (Company Disaster Plan) and personal (your own checklist) level, think about how you are able to respond during a crisis. Better yet, can you simulate the network effects of the disaster type, and practice the steps you should take, including preparation? As much as possible, consider a "Usability Study" to see how your plan would actually work with real people.
Disaster Plans all look great in theory, but they often break down in the "real world."
The Society of Communications Technology Consultants (SCTC) is an international organization of independent information and communication technology (ICT) professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide