Be prepared–be very prepared
It’s a running joke around the office that I am obsessed with doom-and-gloom topics. I’ve written about chemical plants and their capability to kill millions; monster hurricanes; the death toll a collapsed coalmine practically guarantees; and the dangers of living on a stratovolcano.
But it’s not that I am dark-minded. I’ve just been trained since early childhood. My father consistently pointed out dangers. As a firefighter, electric blankets, space heaters and matches were all but banned from our house. To this day, I can clearly hear him bark “that’s a fire danger” when I didn’t clean out the dryer’s lint trap. He’d also make me discard newspapers piled in the corner of my bedroom saying, “You’ll never get out of here alive with that sort of kindling.”
So I realized at an early age that lack of foresight is the greatest enabler of risk. As a writer for Urgent Communications, I’ve learned the true meaning of it. Things happen. But before anything happens, systems need to be in place. Operational drills must be run and personnel trained. Everyone needs to be prepared.
When it comes to a natural disaster, this is even truer. Take hurricanes for example. While the strength of these storms can be measured and their paths predicted, it’s difficult to know exactly where they will make landfall—until it’s too late. This means systems need to be in place prior to an event. In September, Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston, Texas. I know people in Galveston. Though the event didn’t get the national media coverage that Hurricane Katrina did in 2005, I was told that Ike’s destruction was still the same: flooding, neighborhoods destroyed, electrical grids down, and so on.
The storm also threatened the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and it was evacuated. This is where the story gets brighter. Last year, the center installed Quintron Systems’ voice-over-IP mission voice switch to provide geographically dispersed U.S. scientists with voice-link communications access to the International Space Station. The link enables them to remotely participate in experiments aboard the ISS, as well as connect to researchers located in Europe, Russia and Japan.
The day of the storm, the IP-based system was active for researchers. Before Ike hit, the system was adapted to provide remote user access for the International Space Station Flight Team and National Aeronautics and Space Administration personnel on the ground, said David Wilhite, the company’s VP. NASA’s role in ISS support involves maintenance of flight control, ISS altitude, flight equipment systems and life support equipment. That means if the center shut down, those on board would likely lose systems—and life support is essential when one is orbiting 250 miles above Earth.
Wilhite said the flight control group accessed voice communications circuits remotely by using Internet links instead of typical legacy voice circuits. In other words, it let people do their jobs even though Johnson Space Center officially was shut down. He admits that assisting in hurricane evacuation isn’t the main function of its system. Yet, a project that started simply as a way to connect researchers scattered about the world ended up supporting essential communications for those hovering well above it.
NASA got it right the first time, and clearly benefitted from its foresight. And, in the words of my father, “getting it right the first time makes sure you’re ready the next time around.”
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