The city of Hayward, Calif., also known as the “Heart of the Bay” because of its convenient central location, is located in Alameda County, which is part of the East Bay. It is the sixth-largest city in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a current population of 151,300 — a population that is expected to grow to 171,800 by 2030.

The Hayward Fault is a geologic fault zone about 37 miles long that lies mainly along the western base of the hills east of San Francisco Bay. Parallel to its more famous (and much longer) neighbor to the west, the San Andreas Fault, the Hayward Fault is capable of generating significantly destructive earthquakes through the center of Hayward.

“The fault is on a 150-year cycle of large earthquakes, with the last one occurring approximately 152 years ago,” said Clancy Priest, Hayward’s chief information officer.

Because the area is well overdue for a major earthquake, the city needed to look at all of its operations from a business-continuity perspective, in order to ensure that it was prepared for an even of such magnitude.

“How would the city stay connected? How would we function? When I became CIO in 2002, I became dedicated to answering these questions,” Priest said.

An engineer by trade, Priest determined that the most effective way to ensure operational continuity was to establish a citywide 802.11 wireless bridge backbone. The first step was to research how to connect the routers and determine where they should be located. Eventually, Priest targeted 19 sites throughout the area, starting at the bay and extending into the surrounding hills. These sites included nine fire stations, the city library, the local school-district headquarters and the police department.

Simultaneously, Hayward’s public-safety radio system was failing and needed significant repairs that would cost several million dollars. Partnering with the city’s public-safety communications manager, Priest began building new towers throughout the city that would house both the wireless bridge and an updated public-safety radio network. Cisco was chosen as the project’s vendor, largely because its equipment could be linked to the major tower sites via a specialized microwave channel, according to Priest.

“We needed 802.11 wireless bridging technologies that seamlessly function with our radio network and address each tower’s particular caveat,” Priest said. “Basically, we needed a line drawn between public safety and emergency operations.”

The project took just two years to complete. When it was done, the result was a robust, incredibly stable network backbone, according to Priest. “We conducted point-to-point testing of each site,” he said. “In the middle of a weekday, during peak work hours, we unplugged the fiber to one of the police stations. The entire network seamlessly transferred over to the wireless bridge network with only a quarter of a second delay.”

Then, just to be sure, they transferred the network five more times. “No one could even tell,” Priest said. “You could pull the plug on Hayward, and I guarantee we would stay in business.”

Today, buildings and offices throughout the city use the network for general, day-to-day wireless activities, which has resulted in a more collaborative and mobile work force. “The fire and police departments, airport, library, and water pollution control plant are just a few of the sites that currently leverage the city’s wireless network,” Priest said. “These departments now have access to wider data bandwidth.”

Priest added that CIOs in surrounding communities and across the country are extremely interested in what his city has accomplished. Indeed, the business-continuity benefits of 802.11 wireless point-to-point bridging has become a recurring topic of conversation among CIOs over the past several years due to the rise in instances of city immobilization resulting from natural disasters.

“Obviously, it is better to be prepared for an emergency rather than wish technologies and solutions had been put into place,” Priest said. “It is irresponsible and negligent for city officials to not address these issues prior to a drastic event occurring.” As a precautionary measure, for example, each site and tower in Hayward is equipped with a generator that can survive for up to 24 hours.

Although other cities in the United States have deployed wireless point-to-point bridging networks, Hayward approached its emergency preparedness from a holistic standpoint, according to Priest.

“Most cities rely on fibers that are in the ground; however, in the event of a major earthquake, we cannot expect land lines, phones, interconnectivity, or fiber to survive,” he said. “Hayward’s close proximity to a fault line forced us to create a fully functioning wireless bridging network.”

The next phase of the project calls for the deployment of a satellite on the roof of Hayward’s City Hall that will integrate with the 802.11 wireless bridging backbone. “This self-correcting satellite will include a global position system that can alert authorities if the building shifts during an earthquake or other natural disaster,” Priest said.

The city also is considering deploying telepresence technology on the network, as well in the fire department’s nine stations and the city’s emergency operations center. “Our goal is to use the advanced video conferencing service for briefings, trainings, and emergency updates,” Priest said.

Larry Payne is vice president for state and local government and education for Cisco Systems.