Sunday, October 23, 2011

The importance of communications during emergencies

Early 2011 saw the worst floods in Queensland, Australia in 40 years.

Not surprisingly, this placed significant stresses on response efforts, and for a variety of reasons, the Queensland Government has issued an interim report on the event and what responses should be made.

You can read the interim report here.

I have been reading through this from a telecommunications perspective, and found the following items:

2.24  Seqwater should give consideration to posting information about current and future releases on its website during flood events as one method of ensuring accurate and timely information is available to the public. 

This may seem like a small matter, but by making the information available somewhere where someone in the community could access it, and possibly disseminate it further, perhaps by word of mouth, or perhaps by feeding it into a crowd-source incident reporting system such as Ushahidi or the Serval Rhizome/Mapping combination, where it could be made available to others who need it.  Indeed, this process could be automated, providing a very valuable community service.  However, if the information is not shared in the first instance, then such broad and means of distribution will be troublesome to implement, and potentially disadvantage many.

In short, putting information out where the public can get to it, and make further use of it supports resilience.

5.21 The Queensland Fire and Rescue Service should ensure that rescue technicians on deployment are provided with individual radios, rather than sharing a communications pack

Presumably the sharing of communications packs is related to their cost and bulk.
Using off-the-shelf meshing mobile phones would allow all rescue technicians to have a personal means of communications that makes use of the shared communications pack, relaying traffic back through that resource.

5.29 The Queensland Fire and Rescue Service should consider isolating repeaters during a large scale emergency response. If this solution is found to be feasible, it should be implemented as protocol as soon as possible. If it is not, the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service should explore other solutions to the issue of the fire communications network being overloaded and firefighters resorting to localised networks during large scale emergency response situation.

This seems to be responding to the issue of excessive traffic being relayed across the region, congesting the system and preventing it being of effective use.  The Serval Mesh system has the potential to localise message delivery to the local teams that need it (whether or not they are locally based), and still retaining the ability to broadcast messages over the whole region when suitably addressed.

This is not a particular mode we had considered greatly in the past, so this is a helpful thing for us to discover.

7.2 Lockyer Valley Regional Council should investigate the feasibility of installing alarm-activating gauges in the creeks at Spring Bluff, Murphys Creek and other communities where communication systems are poor and there is a risk of rapid and unexpected water rise.

This is interesting for us to read, as we are already contemplating creating a very similar system for use in the Mekong River Basin on conjunction with a Lao doctoral student here in the department.  The characteristics of the system are having a local mesh broadcast an alarm to all mesh nodes when one or more mesh-equipped sensors indicates a high water level.

It is possible that those sensors could be low-cost mobile telephones connected to a device such as the IOIO, creating a very simple and low-cost solution, provided the device can be powered, perhaps using a solar panel and modest storage battery, such as an old car battery no longer able to supply the peak load required to start a car, but more than sufficient for the couple of watts required to run a phone and sensor.

"SMS alerts are also not a reliable method of providing flood warnings in parts of Queensland which experience problems with telephone coverage. That difficulty is compounded during a flood, when telephone reception can be affected by flood related power outages and congested telecommunications networks."

This is precisely the kind of short coming with cellular networks that Serval has sought to find and create solutions for, that complement the existing infrastructure.  In particular, the ability of the Serval Rhizome mesh file/message distribution system to work asynchronously, and automatically share information carried in phones as they more from region to region has particular value in these sorts of situations.

Also, the ability place local calls on the mesh, and where possible, setup connections from the mesh to the outside world offers a significant capability that is otherwise a considerable liability in these situations.

The ability for Serval technology to allow the rapid setup of a local mobile telephone network, and then connect it to the global telecommunications network using the nearest functional mobile phone tower was demonstrated in Brisbane in late January 2011, just a couple of weeks after the flooding had subsided.

We did this by placing a phone running the Serval software at a high vantage point where it could communicate with the nearest functional mobile phone tower (we used a helium balloon, but a roof top, or even a long fishing pole gaffer taped to a car would suffice).  This then allowed the phones on the ground that were also running our software to relay calls out to the world.  Here is the video we took of us doing exactly this, and watching people use it:

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