Hurricane Matthew: Tools for Emergency Responders in the Digital Era
On October 4, 2016, powerful Hurricane Matthew crashed into the southwestern tip of Haiti as a category 4 storm with 145 mph winds, destroying homes, major bridges and infrastructure and flooding communities. Next Matthew moved northward from Haiti and Cuba to Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, at peak, reaching sustained winds of 160 mph. Authorities have reported at least 900 deaths due to the hurricane, including at least 39 deaths across five southeastern states with more than half of them in North Carolina.
Cisco Tactical Operations (TacOps) is a highly skilled and dedicated team that can mobilize and respond to natural disasters and other catastrophes when normal communications infrastructure have been degraded or destroyed. TacOps has many resources at its disposal including Network Emergency Response Vehicles (NERVs), Emergency Communications Unit (ECU) Trailers, and a variety of portable kits. Their trained logistics coordinators and engineers maintain strong relationships with local and federal government agencies and humanitarian organizations worldwide – including NetHope, American Red Cross, USAID, FEMA, and the U.S. Department of Defense. Cisco TacOps plays a key role in public safety when needed.
These resources and their services were called into action in North Carolina as a result of destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew. The hurricane dumped up to 15 inches of rain in less than a day in areas over the eastern third of the state swelling rivers to some of their highest levels ever recorded and resulting in wide-spread flooding and evacuations for tens of thousands.
Trained to work in just such a challenging environment, the TacOps team mobilized with the Cisco NERV and other deployable communications equipment during the acute phase of the emergency, to provide secure networking and communications services to support emergency management staff, 911 operators, and regional Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams. The Cisco NERVs are NIMS Type II mobile communications centers with advanced technologies to facilitate secure emergency collaboration and inter-agency interoperability. The priority for TacOps support is given to mission-critical public safety, government, and critical infrastructure agencies. It is not required that they be a Cisco customer or partner and there is no charge for the services provided.
During Hurricane Matthew, the Cisco TacOps team supported over 15 GB of data across first responder organizations over a 24 hour period. From an operations perspective, this included:
- NERV data connectivity via Cisco’s Ku-Band High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) service
- Air-to-ground radio interoperability using Cisco Instant Connect, enabling helicopters and ground personnel to communicate and coordinate rescues in flood zones
- SIP-based IP telephony to support Emergency Operations Center and USAR staff
- IP-based video surveillance for situational awareness
- Printing support for a 911 Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), and
- Advanced cybersecurity protection
Building a Legacy of Digital Support During Disasters
Cisco TacOps was formed in 2003, initially to support the military with field networks and communications. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Cisco deployed hundreds of employees and tons of networking equipment to the devastated US Gulf Coast; however the response was not coordinated at the corporate level, and there were no standard deployable communication technology platforms resulting in a lack of efficiency. With many lessons learned from this experience, the TacOps team’s focus was shifted to disaster response, and they have since become Cisco’s primary crisis team to provide emergency networking and communications support. The team is now comprised of nine full-time engineers and operations coordinators who are supported by more than 300 Disaster Incident Response Team (DIRT) employee volunteers in the United States, China, Europe, and Brazil. Through an ongoing training program, Cisco ensures that our engineers and DIRT members are prepared to respond in the harshest of disaster environments. Since Katrina, the TacOps team has responded to dozens of incidents around the world.
TacOps also serves as an opportunity for those of us at Cisco to share in our belief that there has never been a better time for technology to help out with some of the world’s toughest challenges and to develop new approaches to tackle these issues. By leveraging the accelerating transformation of digital technologies in areas such as secure wired and wireless IP-based data, voice, video (surveillance & teleconferencing) and radio, we can support, and in some cases improve, ongoing public safety activities. With Cisco TacOps we are dedicated to providing real-time coverage of global events including weather, natural disasters, geopolitical events, critical infrastructure, disease outbreaks and many more that may affect Cisco and its customers.
The TacOps team does more than just set up networks when disasters strike; they show people the value of communications during their aftermath.