Nearly one year ago, Union University in Jackson, Tenn., was hit by an F4 tornado, which completely destroyed 16 buildings, most of them dormitories, trapping students under crumbled walls and floors and causing more than $40 million in damages. Remarkably, no one was killed. But the university was left to grapple with how it would continue operating that semester when 30 percent of its student housing had been wiped away. It managed to start classes again just 15 days later, thanks to Wi-Fi deployments and a leased hotel nearby.

Aruba Networks donated a Wi-Fi controller and 75 access points, and the network was constructed in a matter of days. “Our goal was getting services to the students they needed to provide normalcy in a process that is anything but normal,” said Curt Parish, director of network support for Union University. “We had better support for them than we supplied before with our old (wired) network.”

Prior to the tornado, Union University had used Wi-Fi access points to augment its broadband connections, but didn’t consider it a primary network. Now the university plans to expand Wi-Fi throughout campus. It proved to be a vital interoperability tool for the National Guard, state and local first responders, and utilities. All were able to plug into an access point and communicate with one another, Parish said. “It was funny. I saw this generator tied to a utility pole and walked around the back to find an access point hanging off a telephone pole,” Parish said.

For more sophisticated interoperability, Aruba enables a standard access point to be plugged into a 3G cellular modem to be used for widespread communications. Since April 2008, Aruba Networks has been pushing its Mobile Remote Access Point (RAP) software as a way to help first responder or disaster recovery requirements, and Union University may use that solution as part of its disaster-recovery plan going forward. RAP technology delivers follow-me connectivity to mobile users once the modem is plugged into the access point. The wide area connectivity is provided by a broadband wireless USB modem (including EVDO and HSDP) or Ethernet—or both for high-availability applications. RAP automatically will select the fastest available connection. If one fails it will switch to the surviving connection.

Union University now is in the process of expanding Wi-Fi coverage outdoors throughout the campus and is building a point-to-point network using its bell tower as the launching point. The university has just completed an assessment of how the tornado directly impacted communications. Parish said Wi-Fi definitely would be a part of emergency plans going forward.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.