By Abbie Gruwell
As disasters continue to impact communities across the country, states face increasing barriers to executing effective emergency communications.
Disasters such as the wildfires in California, flooding in Texas, and shootings in Florida highlight the importance of developing and evaluating state plans and making communications a top priority in disaster response. Recent disasters have highlighted the areas in which the federal government supports states.
States face a variety of communications issues during disaster response and recovery, including language barriers, power outages, and tower or cable damage. State emergency response teams are responsible for disseminating information and many states have issued some guidance for locals in developing emergency communications plans.
States are beginning to develop more sophisticated communications response plans, including personnel training and clear chains of command in case of a real crisis or training exercise, such as the false missile alert in Hawaii.
Federal agencies play an important role in coordinating emergency communications led by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).
During recent wildfires, mobile command centers went down, leading to conflict with mobile providers and incentivizing states to fortify their response plans.
Several states have recent laws or introduced bills to improve disaster communications. A California state law requires the California Office of Emergency Services to develop emergency guidance and notifications in Spanish and Chinese, and the office has since released messages in 17 languages. A bill filed in Florida gives the state the power to bypass local government to complete radio tower upgrades for emergency communications after two years and if public safety is at risk.
States are also turning to solutions including mobile operations satellite expeditionary systems (MOSES) and increasing reliance on cloud-based systems.
Failure in a communications or sensor networks can lead to cascading failures, and as utilities also rely on electricity, there needs to be coordination between state entities in disaster planning.
Federal agencies primarily assign emergency response teams, including regional communications experts, coordinate hot spot and tower repair deployment, deploy gap measures like mobile trucks that can include satellite backhaul and microwave systems, and provide real-time information strategies like drone-based cellular service.
The FCC has recognized the need for communications response teams to coordinate with utility providers to establish power priorities and involve utilities and communications providers in training together. The FCC and FEMA also provide technical support as states develop statewide communication interoperability plans and FEMA regional emergency communications plans.
Last fall CISA released the latest version of the National Emergency Communications Plan, the strategic plan for establishing and maintaining communications operability, interoperability and continuity. The FCC also has immediate response capabilities, including the Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS).
DIRS is a web-based system that brings together communications companies, including wireless, wireline, broadcast and cable providers to report communications infrastructure status and situational awareness information. The FCC and FEMA work together to activate DIRS during a disaster and provide a centralized reporting process that allows providers to share network status information in real time. The FCC also leads channel management and coordination of first responder communications and 911 systems.
There is some pressure on the federal government to require further communications systems resiliency. In response to the communications systems failures during Hurricane Katrina and other major disasters, the FCC has pursued and retracted rules to require carriers to provide eight hours of back-up power at cell sites to ensure emergency communications continuity. Puerto Rico experienced similar communications systems blackouts and the FCC announced a $950 million investment to improve, expand, and harden broadband networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2019.
The FCC also voted last year to allow public safety officials to send more geographically precise alerts to avoid unnecessary alarm. Alerts can now be contained to within one-tenth of a mile of the target audience. Congress may send the power to the states, as a bill by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) would give states the authority to require wireless companies to install backup generators at cell sites.
States are the leaders in emergency response, but state legislators and disaster coordinators need to be aware of the federal resources available to support mitigation and response during a crisis that threatens 911 systems, wireless and wireline infrastructure, and the ability of the state to disseminate vital information.
Abbie Gruwell is senior committee director for NCSL's Communications, Financial Services, and Interstate Commerce Committee in the State-Federal Affairs Division.