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Effective Disaster Response Requires Open and Resilient Communications


Reliable communications help provide quick, safe, life-saving help when a natural disaster strikes.

Scientists revised their forecasts for this hurricane season, saying they expect “above-normal” activity based on the latest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2023 briefing. As thousands of responders stand at the ready to rush out selflessly into dangers, it’s vital that they be able to rely on open and resilient communications with their colleagues to effectively perform in their jobs.

Unfortunately, responder communication breakdowns are often a pain point in an after-action review on what could be done better. Many responders either don’t have compatible technology, didn’t have the technology configured correctly or were not adequately trained on how to use the technology. And there’s always a risk that violent storm conditions will take out towers, causing communication devices to go silent. Any of these occurrences can disrupt and frustrate responders in critical moments and threaten the safety of responders and those they’re trying to help.

No responder should have to worry about their communication lines going silent, especially when dealing with dangerous and far-reaching natural disasters. To help avoid communication breakdowns, responders deserve open and resilient systems that give them reliable communications when they need it most.


A wide-area communications system that is open and resilient is the foundation for any community to prepare itself for the risk of dealing with natural disasters. The system must be designed to adequately address conditions that range from normal to life threatening and be able to withstand the punishment from a natural disaster.

Asking a few key questions can help you determine if a system can give responders the reliable communications they need.


Responders need help connecting with their colleagues from other agencies when their radios are only designed to work within a specific vendor’s family of products. That’s why some responders who use proprietary-based radios are switching to open standards-based radios.

Standards-based radios allow responders to talk to each other across different networks and vendor platforms. What’s more, standards-based radios give agencies freedom and flexibility to choose the device and carrier they like and believe will best support their mission.

Today, P25 is the go-to standard for enabling cross-agency communications. The standard defines various interfaces for radio systems, from how a radio talks to a tower to how responders in one county talk to responders from another. Allowing different agencies using P25-compliant radio systems to reliably communicate with each other during and after a disaster can result in safer and better-coordinated responses.

Through efforts like the Mission Critical Alliance, suppliers are using open standards to connect responder technologies into a larger technology ecosystem. This ability to link together the many technologies supporting natural disaster response efforts – from computer-aided dispatch and fire-alerting systems to live cameras, 3D maps, and personnel tracking devices – can help automate responses and empower responders with real-time information and more outstanding communications.

Ultimately, you want open standards that make connecting responders simple.


Resilient is a fitting term for responders who put in long, exhausting hours in challenging conditions. They deserve communication systems that also keep working when times get tough. Building layers of redundancy into communications infrastructure helps ensure responders can count on their communication devices in the most trying situations.

Put simply, no single point of failure should bring down your communications system. At the network level, for example, backup power sources should be in place at a public safety network’s core location and all radio tower sites. Back-haul redundancy from a tower site to the network core can also keep radio lines open. Additionally, systems should be designed to provide a base level of communication when multiple major failures occur.

Redundancies are also needed at the device level. For instance, responders’ radios that have layered communication paths can keep responders connected even in the most challenging storms. These layers are commonly seen as:

  1. Multiple frequency bands that allow a radio to operate on any channel available.
  2. Multiple technologies so the device can select either land mobile radio (LMR) or broadband network connections.
  3. A “talk around” mode that allows for radio-to-radio communications even if both the LMR and broadband networks aren’t available.

Many agencies are also expanding their communication systems to include soft applications that allow responders to speak with anyone on their network via a mobile phone or personal computer. These apps can be beneficial for responders who don’t typically carry radios, like relief providers, administrators and government leaders.


Many radios used today in natural disaster response were developed to meet military standards. For most responders, that level of physical toughness is more than enough to meet the demands of their jobs.

At the same time, even military-grade radios may not be rugged enough for responders like firefighters to hold up to the extreme conditions they can encounter. They need radios built to a standard like National Fire Protection Association standard 1802, which puts radios through a battery of tests to make sure they are mission ready. In just one of those tests, radios are cooked for 15 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and then submerged nearly 5 feet in water for another 15 minutes. This test cycle is repeated six times, and the radio’s functionality must be confirmed after each cycle.

Of course, today’s communications systems don’t only face physical threats – they also need to mitigate ever-evolving cyber attacks. Built-in security measures like voice and data encryption can help protect responders’ communications and their systems from cyber threats.


Embracing technology should be a standard element of your disaster preparation planning. Open and resilient communication systems can help keep all responders connected to provide the most effective response to a natural disaster. Train beyond the “normal” use case and understand the multiple layers of operation that your system has to provide.

To learn more about how to improve communication reliability in disaster response, visit