Communications Under Fire

Do you smell smoke?

It’s too early in the fire season to know if 2017 will be a record-breaking year for wild fires in Canada’s Province of British Columbia, but it certainly won’t hit the books as a slow year! It’s mid-July, a month earlier than usual, and already firefighting crews have been deployed throughout BC to battle 365 wild fires, 122 of them still active.

Only a fraction of BC’s vast area is covered by mobile phone service. That leaves fire crews relying on other tools to communicate with their command centre and each other. Unfortunately, traditional solutions suffer from a common weakness: while adequate under normal situations, they become stressed beyond their capacity in an environment characterized by large-scale emergency team deployments combined with wide-scale evacuation of residents.

While there are some technical difficulties with traditional communication methods in emergencies, there are also some recent innovations that help counter the existing shortfalls.

What’s that in your hand?

In general, the communication tools used during emergencies are what’s used every day by workers in remote areas:
– Mobile cellular, when available
– VHF radio
– Satellite phone
– CB radios (no, the CB didn’t disappear with bell bottoms and platform shoes)
– Walkie-talkies (FRS and GMRS)

Other options that frequently come into play during emergencies:
– The closest landline.  In North America at least, landline service has better remote “coverage” than mobile
– Amateur (ham) radio is frequently cited as a “life-saver” during disasters.
– SPOT: Popular with recreationalists, SPOT is a small send-only handheld device that uses satellite to send your GPS coordinates and text messages to whoever you have set up to receive them.

When bad things happen to good people

After the devastating 2016 Fort McMurray fire we know exactly what happens to communications when wildfire causes over 100,000 people to flee their homes:
– Demand for traditional voice and data services increases dramatically, making access to this limited resource difficult for everyone.
– Damaged infrastructure reduces or eliminates land-based communication services. Overhead wires are burned and cell and radio towers may be out of service.
– An influx of emergency response personnel means the industrial radio channels become overloaded, making even basic communication time consuming and challenging.
– After evacuation begins it quickly becomes impossible to locate people and their resources.

Also, what is easy to overlook is that people who have little or no emergency-response training want to, and often do, assist during a major emergency. These amateurs, in the original and much more positive sense of the word, rarely have a VHF radio or satellite phones. It is also highly unlikely they will be familiar with the communication processes and protocols that professionals use daily. This is makes it challenging to properly integrate them into professional teams.

Back to basics

When it comes to disaster planning we know what doesn’t work, both technically and economically: spend buckets of money to overbuild and over-protect everything. The economics rarely work, and we humans just aren’t all that good at predicting how and where disaster will strike.  A more likely path to success is focusing on root cause:
– Everyone wants to communicate MORE when we need each of them to communicate LESS … or at least more efficiently. During a disaster, you want to enable and encourage people to not use their normal communication tools and yet still send and receive the essential information they need.
– Land-based infrastructures (i.e. landlines and mobile service) are, in general, higher performance and can handle higher traffic loads. But only satellite-based systems give you true separation from landscape-scale disturbances like wildfires, earthquakes, and flooding.
– When the “normal” communication services fail, or become overloaded you can’t expect the general public to have the specialized device(s) they need to use a totally different communication service. Also, as mentioned previously, you can’t expect someone temporarily assisting emergency service personnel to know how to use a specialized communication device – even something as basic as a sat-phone. For the solution to scale to a true disaster scenario you must base the solution on what people are comfortable with and already have at hand, or in this case, in their hand. Spoiler alert, it’s their smartphone.
– When people are forced to flee you really do need to know where they end up! “Out of the frying pan into the fire” becomes all too likely. Even the staunchest privacy advocate will agree that if every emergency-related communication automatically provided identity and geo-location it would radically improve and broaden disaster information and response systems.

Putting it back together

Here at yodelME, we focus on worker communication and employee safety for those operating in geographically remote areas. Interestingly, what we’ve learned, and turned into the yodelME service, keeps working after landscape-scale disaster strikes and communication needs shift massively.  At its core, the portable yodelME satellite equipment and service creates a WiFi hotspot that any smartphone running the yodelME app can connect to.

Your crew just tripled in size, and half the team is new?  No problem. Everyone pull out their phone and connect to the fire-line hotspot. Fleeing your home? Pull into a gas station, even one completely cut off from traditional communication services, and the yodelME hotspot setup by a first responder quickly set up becomes your lifeline to the outside world. Plus, since we’ve built everything to be incredibly bandwidth efficient and task-focused, the added load can be handled in stride. By design, you will not be able to chat with Mom for an hour regaling your harrowing escape, but neither will you be tying up the critical communication resources needed to allow others from reaching out to ask “Which roads are still open?

Every time you “yodel”, your message or status update is geo-tagged and recorded in yodelME’s secure cloud-based backend. yodelME communications can be monitored by the fire center, emergency services, fellow employees, or essentially anyone you select. That way nobody falls OFF the grid just when they are finding out that staying ON the grid has never been harder, or more important.