Firefighter on duty with mobile phone
#Connected Devices

Enabling disaster relief teams with pop-up comms

Technical Innovation
4 Mins.

When a natural disaster strikes – a major flood, storm, landslide, wildfire, or earthquake – public telecommunications networks are usually early casualties. But reliable, integrated communications are just what responders need when trying to coordinate emergency relief. How can these vital comms services be provided rapidly?

The number of large-scale natural disasters worldwide is increasing at a phenomenal pace. Research by the Institute for Economics & Peace shows a jump from 39 recorded incidents in 1960 to 396 in 2019.1 And the intensity and scale of these events seem to be growing, placing emergency response teams under more pressure than ever before.

As well as the impact on individual lives and property, such events often destroy the communication networks that are essential for deploying resources to deal with the immediate aftermath. For authorities coordinating relief efforts, the absence of mobile telecoms networks and internet access can be a major problem – unless a robust plan for emergency management and communications has been put in place. 

Access all areas

Take the situation of a firefighting team being deployed to tackle a major summer wildfire. There will be a command center that is coordinating the response, but how does that command structure get situational information to the firefighters, and how do those firefighters communicate with the other services at the scene of the disaster – police, fire, ambulance, forestry teams, and utilities companies?

Such public emergencies always require the coordination of complex responses by multiple emergency and public services. But when key infrastructure at the disaster site has been destroyed or damaged, the effective deployment of resources and information sharing cannot take place. Ideally, what is required is a disaster area network to connect emergency workers at the scene with each other and with those coordinating efforts outside of the disaster zone.

Network challenges … and solutions

A disaster area network needs to meet a number of core challenges: it needs to be mobile and rapidly deployable; it needs an independent power supply; it needs a sophisticated combination of local networking and wider, satellite-based communications; and it needs an instantly configurable standard set of smartphones that can be issued to responders. Clearly, that is not something that can be pulled together on the fly.

Vikomobil solution from G+D partner VITES
Vikomobil solution from G+D partner VITES

One solution, from G+D partner VITES, has already been put in place for multiple disaster-response teams. Its Vikomobil ­­solution is effectively a private “pop-up” network, with all the necessary components for a disaster area network packed into a robust vehicle trailer that responders take with them into the disaster zone. It can be rapidly activated to establish all the communication needs of attending emergency staff (via a mobile LTE radio cell, a self-aligning SATCOM system, and a broadband IP mesh network), enabling them to communicate across deployed teams and with command centers.

It has its own power source – an integrated direct-methanol fuel cell – which ensures energy-autonomous operation for a week or more without generating disturbing noise or toxic exhaust gases.

Responders are able to onboard to the quickly established mobile LTE network by scanning a QR code using their on-duty smartphone. That activates a remotely programmable eSIM in the device. The eSIM is configured for the individual user and specific situation.

With natural disasters increasing at a worrying rate, responsible authorities need emergency preparedness plans to respond appropriately to large-scale events. Having a secure, mobile network capability ready to serve emergency teams’ vital communication requirements is an essential part of that.

To that end, various public safety organizations in Germany (e.g., the Hamburg Police, the Brandenburg Police, and the THW) are currently performing live tests and evaluating the performance of the Vikomobil solution.

  1. Institute for Economics & Peace, “Ecological Threat Register,” September 2020

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