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The Cellphone as Ubiquitous Communication Tool During Disaster

The coronavirus will make responding to the traditional hazards like wildfire and hurricanes during the summer more difficult because of the need to mitigate the virus combined with the usual communications that often occur.

As summer approaches, the coronavirus will still be with us as we respond to the usual disasters, like fires and hurricanes, which will require large numbers of people to gather in shelters and respond to help those affected by the disasters.

Craig Fugate, former FEMA administrator, who just collaborated with goTenna on a whitepaper on first-responder communication, has some strategies to manage the situations that include using out-of-work locals and also an offering of how a mesh network could help bolster communications when other means go down.

In working disaster sites, first responders and volunteers congregate, and people have to be housed in closed-in areas for shelter. This will exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus, especially when volunteers are brought in from outside the community.

With large numbers of people unemployed and restaurants needing business, why not enlist those unemployed as the volunteers and pay the restaurants to feed the masses?

“With COVID-19, moving large numbers of responders and volunteers like we do in a lot of disasters carries the risk of spreading more COVID or reintroducing the virus when they go back to disaster sites,” Fugate said. “And we’re in this unique situation that we weren’t in almost six years ago with almost full employment where we’ve not got a lot of people out of work. Why are we not looking at our own community people who may not be affected by the disaster and put them to work?

It's the potential of a large workforce that knows the community and wouldn’t have to be moved. The locals could prepare meals and provide mass care and the meals would have to be boxed similar to what’s done with Meals on Wheels, instead of having the traditional buffet lines.

Along with the issues of trying to respond to the disaster while still trying to avoid spreading the coronavirus is the communication issue that arise routinely. Bringing in portable communications is possible but costly.

Mesh networks have been around for years but so has a lack of interoperability at disaster scenes. Fugate explains how the mesh network could help during a disaster where local volunteers are working to respond to the needs of the community.

“We have two solutions here, we have people who are in the area and are available to go to work, and we can put them to work and they have a ubiquitous communication device, called a cellphone,” he said.

The cellphone is a tool that can be used with the mesh network to deploy consistent communication block by block.

“You won’t have a lot of bandwidth, you’re not going to be doing full-scale video, but I can text and send out messages,” Fugate said. “Whatever the connection is, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, you log in and there may be an app or something you add but it basically goes back to the idea that a phone without cellular networks is a brick.”

Rather than having a bunch of radios, the mesh units can be placed out every block or two to cover and area and get the necessary people linked up. “Like in a warehousing operation or a big food production operation where people are scattered over neighborhoods. I can link them up all pretty easily,” Fugate said.

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