For Those Who Absolutely, Positively Need Their Phone To Work In A Hurricane

from the if-you're-worried dept

Remember all the hype that surrounded Iridium during the project’s early days? The companies backing Iridium dumped billions into the satellite phone project, claiming that it would let everyone use phones around the entire world. Of course, while they spent all that money and built up that big satellite network, most of the places in the world where people might actually be got mobile phone service. Then Iridium finally launched with its expensive brick-sized phones that didn’t work indoors (okay, make that everywhere in the world… with line of sight to a satellite) and service plans that were insanely expensive. At that point, most people recognized that a cheap, small, decent mobile phone really was good enough. Iridium was eventually sold for pennies on the dollar, with the new owners recognizing that they had a niche solution, not a mass market one. It looks like other satellite phone firms are really starting to embrace that philosophy, figuring that if they can find the right, extremely narrow niche, they might be able to sell into it at ridiculously high prices. For example, just as we approach hurricane season, one company is out promoting a “hurricane phone” that will keep on working, even after the hurricane takes out your local mobile phone networks. Of course, it’s only for those who really, really need to stay in touch. The hurricane phone will run you a cool $4,995 — but on the plus side it includes 400 minutes of bundled talk time that never expire, and 120 megs of wireless data services.

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Comments on “For Those Who Absolutely, Positively Need Their Phone To Work In A Hurricane”

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Andrew Pollack (profile) says:

To emergency services, that's not a bad deal.

I’m a lieutenant on a fire department. As such, I’m aware of (though not responsible directly for) the purchase of all kinds of emergency services equipment. If you consider the costs of the kind of equipment it takes to keep connectivity during a long term power loss situation over a wide area (ice storm in Northern New England a few years ago, Katrina in the south last year) when hundreds of square miles are without cell service or radio repeaters these kinds of solutions don’t look expensive.

Consider – To use radios to communicate, which is critical for fire, ems, and police to do more than drive around aimlessly – you must have repeaters every “N” miles. “N” is determined by the terrian and power limits of course. In rural parts where there are many towns with their own frequencies you need more. In urban areas or areas which use expensive “trunking” radios to put more people on the same frequencies you need fewer. An ice storm or hurricane like Katrina can take down the towers over a VERY wide area.

If you lose the repeaters and cell towers over even a 10 mile by 10 mile area, that’s 100 square miles without coverage. What are your alternatives?

You could keep spare repeater towers, generators, and equipment at the ready in key locations. You’ll need people trained to put them up of course, and until they get up you have no service. Its not easy putting up new towers. You either have very very large ones which are very difficult, or a great many small ones.

You could deploy a military style “battlefield radio network”. I think that’s being looked at, but training everyone to start using it is not a simple matter. The most effective way would probably be to add a trained national guard member to each crew to handle communications using their protocols and practices.

Or you could put one or two $5000 sat. phones at each fire station and police station. A fire truck is a $100,000 purchase at minimum, and more like $250,000 for an average class A pumper. A ladder truck or heavy rescue can run well past $750,000. That’s before you add equipment. Not every truck would have to have one, as radios can work in “local” or “talk around” mode on a given scene. Having one sat phone at each scene to talk to the command center would go a long way to solving the problem.

From that perspective, $5,000 seems cheap.

I’m not sure

GIJoeBob (user link) says:

Just get a ham radio license and you can talk all over the world. There are ham radio networks in place right now that allow for worldwide voice, video and data communications through redundant systems and frequencies.

Emergency services? Contact your local ham radio emergency services group. They have their own portable equipment, receive regular training and know how to work with other emergency service groups.

Andrew Pollack (profile) says:

Gi JoeBob... Ham doesn't really meet this need.

Ham radio is well and good but just having a channel doesn’t meet the need. You’d need a ham radio operator with a portable radio coordinating with a command station for each concurrent incident. The operator would need to be well versed in the incident management system (ICS 700 and ICS 100) at the very least.

Radio communication isn’t just about having a walkie-talkie. Too much or the wrong kind of traffic is as bad as no radios at all.

Joe T says:

Re: Gi JoeBob... Ham doesn't really meet this nee

Ham radio has one aspect that makes it very attractive during disasters – the ability to operate and to pass voice, video, and data with no pre-established fixed infrastructure. Further, these capabilities can be leveraged for local, regional, national, or international communications. That ham sitting in the cab of the pumper can be connected back to the fire station, which in turn can talk to the ham at the EOC, then to Law Enforcement, Red Cross, the State EOC, FEMA, etc, etc, etc. Hams can put together a communications network in short order that can save (and has many times over saved) the day until regular comms can be re-established.

Futher, as was mentioned by GiJoeBob, most active hams that participate in emergency communications receive ICS 100/200/700 training in addition to our own comms training. We understand ICS and what and how to communicate in most cases. Go into any EOC and there’s a better than average chance that you’ll find a ham station (usually called RACES – Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service or ACS – Auxiiary Communications Service) there. Ham Radio is, in many cases, officially written into the disaster plan because of it’s unique capabilities.

From my Jeep (which can get into many places that regular vehicles cannot), I can even send emails to someone with internet access outside the disaster area – and that’s without need for anything infrastructure-based – cellular, power, or telephone.

Back to the topic at hand, however, at the recent Government Technology Conference in Sacramento there was a sat phone provider with quite reasonably priced equipment and plans – all in a nice Pelican case that can be tucked away until needed. But sat phones – even at prices that are reasonable for that industry – are still too expensive to replace a community’s public safety comms systems – and that is where hams can provide the glue needed to hold things together until normal systems can be brought back online.

– JoeT

Kirk says:

Several better options

First, ham radio has met basic communication needs for many years and filled a HUGE void after Katrina. All the same, the smaller numbers of operators meant that many areas were lacking in people to meet the need.

Second, there is a much better (and cheaper) alternative, that might not meet people’s DESIRE for instant carry everywhere communications. You can get unlimited data from satalite dish that can be carried nearly everywhere for less then half the cost.

This idea will fail miserably just as the original Iridium did. Because while we have seemingly unlimited dollars to fight terrorism, natural disasters are still relatively low priority. And if ever as much attention does swing that direction, then people will fill the needs (and many wants) with a better, cheaper product. And by the way, part of the Iridium problems stem from not enough satalites to get your call through at all times. You may need to wait an hour for the next usable pass.

GIJoeBob says:

“Ham radio is well and good but just having a channel doesn’t meet the need. You’d need a ham radio operator with a portable radio coordinating with a command station for each concurrent incident. The operator would need to be well versed in the incident management system (ICS 700 and ICS 100) at the very least.

Radio communication isn’t just about having a walkie-talkie. Too much or the wrong kind of traffic is as bad as no radios at all.”

That is why we train on ICS and NICS as well and drill several times a year.

You might look into it instead of brushing it off.

bjc (profile) says:

Irridium’s bankruptcy and sale for pennies on the dollar was simply how people finance huge projects now.

Spend 5 billion on a project with no prospect of ever breaking even. Get it up and running. Declare bankruptcy. Form a new consortium to buy it back for (in this case) 12 cents on the dollar.

That’s how you build a 5 billion dollar system for $600 million. Cool.

The same type of ‘financing’ is done for large fibre optic installations, and huge buildings such as stadiums.

Myself says:

I’ve got a theory for Iridium to broaden their user-base: Offer low priority traffic for cheap, especially latency-insensitive data traffic. The network costs the same whether it’s being used or not, so just like “free night and weekends” plans, such a scheme would get the terminals into people’s hands. That would drive down manufacturing cost, and grow a base of people who, now that they’ve played with the service, might upgrade to higher classes of service.

Getting it into the hands of hobbyists would probably result in a lot of them pitching it to their employers. Satellite comms have that “cool factor” that just sells itself once people get experience with it.

Joe T says:

In fact...

You might do well to look into Field Day – the annual nationwide disaster communications drill/contest that is taking place on June 25 and 26. It’s a good bet that your local ham radio club will be involved, and it would be an ideal time to discover what capabilties ham radio might be able to bring to you when next you need it:

“Amateur Radio (or “ham radio”) operators throughout the Americas will put their emergency communication and technical expertise to the test during “Field Day,” June 25 and 26. The annual exercise is one facet of activities Amateur Radio operators undergo to ensure they will be ready to volunteer their assistance with communications during disasters and emergencies. Field Day is sponsored by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) — the national association for Amateur Radio.

Field Day was designed to test operators’ abilities to set up and operate portable stations under emergency conditions such as the loss of electricity. Not only is this event a serious test of skill, for many clubs and groups it’s a social occasion too. During the weekend, participants try to contact as many other participating Field Day stations as possible.”

Andrew Pollack (profile) says:

Its not that HAM isn't a good thing...

..I respect greatly what the “Amateur” radio operators can do., and in fact I realize that most are more professional about their work than most professionals and that there is a great deal of overlap between EMS people and ham operators.

That said, keep in mind that 40% of the US population is protected by all volunteer fire departments. There are 800,000 volunteer firefighters and about 300,000 full time paid firefighters in the US.

Getting the same people on the same truck at each incident rarely happens on the best of days. In a dissaster, its likely you’ll have an excellent turnout, but still you’ll be dealing with chaos.

Am I to give you, the ham operator, who is not insurred, trained, or otherwise “blessed” one of the six seats on a new custom cab class A pumper, or one of the 3 on many of the less expensive “commercial cab” trucks in use in smaller communities?

Can I quickly and reliably have a force of say, 5 healthy, fit, available, and well trained ham operators for every 10,000 people a town might have (which is roughly 1 ham operator per apparatus on average) each of whom is equiped with a compatible portable radio?

Assuming (and I don’t believe it) that you could get enough fit, qualified, operators to voluneer to respond as EMS personel for a training program frequently enough to be ready for these kinds of incidents (firefighters in most towns training on average 4 hours a month) do you seriously think a training program and expansion of the 53,000 small departments in the US would cost less than buying sat phone for a few thousand dollars a truck?

Just getting bunker gear for that guy would break $2500 and we haven’t even started talking about insuring him or her, costs of training and paperwork, etc.

Do you imagine you’d be able to take him or her untrained, uninsured, or without safety gear on the trucks?

Remember, you’re going into an inherently hazzardous area. Just riding on the truck into that kind of situation requires training on a regular basis in how to handle down power lines, traffic issues, unsafe water, hazmat, biohazard, unsafe elevation or declination, and a host of other things.

Think I’m kidding here? If you don’t take that kind of thing seriously, you’ll quickly be adding to the problem, not solving it.

No, I think just training costs, paperwork costs, insurrance costs, and a set of safety gear would immediately overtop the cost of that $5,000 dollar phone the first year, and that phone will last several years.

Joe T says:

First, in most states, when a disaster occurs, hams activated by the EMO under RACES or ACS are covered for insurance purposes as State or County workers.

Second, the ham wouldn’t neccesarily ride on the apparatus for the reasons that you cite. More likely, he would be in a chief’s car, and the chief would operate simplex to the apparatus. The ham would keep the chief in contact with the EOC and other groups by extension. They would stay as far away from the hazards as possible/practical.

How many people might respond? They are volunteers, but consider that in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley here in Florida, hams came from all over the US, including California, to help as part of mutual aid teams. The same obviously holds true for Katrina and the other storms of last year – and you can Google “amateur radio” & Katrina to get an idea of how hams were involved – literally saving lives by directing first responders to people who were stranded in flood waters. We also passed messages from those in the area to loved ones across the country to let them know that they were OK.

Consider that after 9/11, one of the first groups that was called to Ground Zero after (obviously) lifesaveing and law enforecement groups were Amateur Radio Operators, who worked in and around that area for weeks – without incident, without “getting in the way”, and, by all accounts, with the praise of all the groups involved.

So while I am not saying that hams make the sun shine and the waters recede, they can certainly augment communications when needed. They can do so with radios that are interoperable (almost every ham has at least one radio that works on the Amateur 2 meter band – which has the equivilent of more than 400 channels) and that can work off of any 12v source – and for which we could even build battery packs on the fly if required. We can set up or build antennas to replace ones that are destroyed. That’s a capability that we are expert in – getting comms back from whatever is around, Macguyver-style – and that can be invaluable when everything you’ve counted on for comms is mostly down.

As for how you and your community make use of them – that’s entirely up to you and your EMO.

Hams train themselves in communications protocols, procedures, and techniques – and are open to training such as ICS/NIMS that help us interoperate with served agencies and understand how they operate. Many of us have equipped ourselves and our vehicles to be completely self-sufficient – carrying enough food, water, gear, and essentials for several days. Some have trailers from which they can become mobile communications command posts. I, personally, can operate the radios in my vehicle from solar power essentially indefinately – or take them and the solar capability into a building or a field as needed. If you need us, we’ll be there. If you choose not to make use of us, that’s fine too – but I think you’d be ignoring what can be a priceless resource for no better reason than you don’t understand it.

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