Public safety reconsiders who should use its broadband network
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Business-critical vs. mission-critical
Few have questioned whether utilities’ communications are important, but many in public safety traditionally have argued that these communications typically do not rise to the mission-critical level of traditional first-responder communications.
Indeed, on a daily basis, many utility communications may not have the same urgency as those of public safety. If an electric meter is not read for a day or a week, justice will not be compromised and no one will be injured or die. Indeed, even most brownouts or blackouts are temporary in nature and prove to be more inconvenient than substantially damaging to life and property.
But the ability of utilities to perform their functions effectively can have a significant impact on public safety. When a major incident — for instance, a natural or man-made disaster — occurs, one of the first logistical issues that must be determined is whether utility systems are operating properly. If commercial electrical and gas power can be leveraged and drinking water is readily available, the response effort is much simpler than if even one of these critical components is not operational or has been compromised.
In fact, in some cases, traditional public safety is virtually helpless to take action until a utility is able to address a problem at a scene. One example is a fire associated with a gas leak, according to Lee Onsager of NV Energy in Nevada.
"If the power guys can’t talk to shut off the power, the fire guys sit there and watch it burn," Onsager said.
An even more dire example occurred in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan and led to the meltdown of nuclear reactors in the region, which became the focus of international concern for several weeks after the disaster occurred.
In other cases, the lack of functioning utility infrastructure has exacerbated already challenging recovery efforts. After Hurricane Katrina, the lack of commercial power to provide cooling caused a key police radio system to shut down; meanwhile, first responders struggled to keep communications equipment powered. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the recovery effort was made much more difficult in certain areas where commercial power failed.
"The ability to set partnerships with utilities, and they become almost a first responder or a second responder in support of first responders, is going to be hugely helpful," said FirstNet board member Charles Dowd, who is a deputy chief in the New York Police Department. "You want to ensure that they can get their job done and that you can communicate with them efficiently during [disasters].
"If you look at any hurricane scenario in an older city like New York, there are overhead wires everywhere. A huge piece of our puzzle is deciding whether those wires are dangerous. Police and fire need the support of utilities to address that. And then you have trees down everywhere. The department of parks has teams going out, and they have to be able to communicate with first responders in order to prioritize which of those tree-down jobs they have to get to first."
This importance of utilities has been underscored in Christchurch, the second-largest city in New Zealand, which struggled to keep its commercial power grid online after a 2011 earthquake and a series of aftershocks, according to Paul Daigneault, CEO/managing director for MiMOMax Wireless.
"When the power goes out, people die," Daigneault said. "Power-utility communications [are] mission-critical. I would argue with anybody who says otherwise."