Terrestrial communication systems typically are knocked out by disasters, or overloaded following them. Here we review how satellite systems have overcome these problems for events such as 9/11 and last year’s Haitian earthquake, and how recent advances in portable base station design will give significantly greater access to communication networks in an emergency.
Image 1: Destruction in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake
Recent years have seen several significant national disasters around the globe, including the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which led to over 15,000 deaths and triggered a level seven meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant; and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, which caused over 300,000 deaths. These joined a host of similar disasters from a landslide in Uganda, to an earthquake in Chile, and severe flooding in both Australia and Thailand.
According to a 2005 New York University report, one of the key preventable losses of life comes from the failure of telecommunications infrastructure. These failures cause "…delays and errors in emergency response and disaster relief efforts,” say the authors, noting that "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."
Published five months after the Indian Ocean tsunami and four months before hurricane Katrina, the report also stated: "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."
Even when a network isn’t damaged in a disaster, problems can arise purely through overload. People call to reassure friends and family that they are all right, generating massive spikes in traffic. Examples of this include the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the 2007 Minnesota bridge collapse, and the 2010 Chilean earthquake.
It is clear that our daily reliance on communication systems—and with it the ability to, under normal circumstances, see exactly what is happening almost anywhere at any point in time—makes us increasingly aware of the human toll of a disaster.