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Communications lessons from the Boston Marathon bombing

One clear lesson from Boston is that once again the cellular network proved to be vulnerable during a major incident. Steve Dance highlights lessons that business continuity managers should take on board.

One of the ‘side-shows” of the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon was that the cellular networks in the area almost immediately slowed down and, for some time seemed to stop working altogether. Runners and their loved ones could not make contact; first aiders had significant difficulties communicating with emergency responders.

This situation was not peculiar to the Boston incident; mobile/cell phone networks choked off during other major disasters from the Sept. 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre 2001, the London bombings in 2007 and most recently Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

We use mobile / cell phones on a daily basis to run our lives and when a major incident occurs they are the first device that we (and many incident planners) turn to as our primary method of communication. So, when several thousand people are affected by an incident, their first instinct is to contact family and gather information about the situation and let people know that they are safe. But cellular phone networks are just not designed to handle these enormous bursts in traffic and tend to be far from useful when it seems we need them most. The major cause of mobile network ‘unavailability’ during a major incident in a public place is not that the authorities have turned the networks off, it’s because too many people are trying to use their phones at the same time and the system gets overwhelmed.

During the Boston Marathon, AT&T tweeted: “For those in the area please use text & we ask that you keep non-emergency calls to a minimum.”

Verizon also suggested that customers in the area use text messages or e-mail to free up capacity for public safety officials.

On further analysis failures in mobile phone availability is quite straightforward: each mobile carrier operates hundreds or thousands of cell towers and these route calls and data to the carrier’s network. Each tower is designed to handle a set number of calls per second for its designated area. When the majority of people in that area reach for their phone, that limit is rapidly exceeded and the network slows down to a crawl.

So what can we learn from this situation that we can apply going forward and ensure that our channels of crisis communication have the best chance of staying open in these situations?

The key message is “avoid voice communication on mobile networks” wherever possible. Using the phone to send text or e-mail is a better option because messages can be queued up and delivered as capacity becomes available. For text, in particular, the smaller message size allows SMS packets to be “squeezed in”.

For users with smartphones, Twitter is especially efficient because information can be spread quickly and widely: one reason why the service has become increasingly important and reliable in a crisis. Google’s Person Finder, a central digital bulletin board for survivors and families of those in a crisis zone, has also proven itself during major incidents.

A smartphone also offers alternatives to using cellular telephone networks in a crisis as most have the ability to connect to public Wi-Fi networks that use landline communication channels. If a wireless access point can be found, smartphone (and tablet) users can access Internet and social media networks. Voice communications can also be available if the smartphone has applications such as Skype on the device. Skype enables voice communications over an Internet connection so, if a wireless access point can be found, Skype will provide an alternative means of voice messaging (only calls from one Skype id to another are free, calls to landlines and mobiles require a subscription plan that needs to be in place before calls can be made).

For those who have smartphones it’s possible to establish a ‘mobile battle box’ by having the following services pre-installed on the device:

  • Email
  • Twitter
  • Skype for mobile (with an appropriate subscription plan for calling non-Skype numbers)).

Using any of the above via a Wi-Fi connection can significantly improve the chances of effective communication during a major incident.

Author: Steve Dance, managing partner, RiskCentric.

•Date: 1st May 2013 • World •Type: Article • Topic: Crisis communications

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