Tsunami Slams Japanese Coastline. Train Derailment Injures 100. Terrorists Attack Airport. We have all read these headlines too often. Sadly, disasters usually strike without notice and timely response by public agencies is critical.

As citizens, we depend upon public services agencies for our safety and protection. Effective communications is essential to cope in real time. Yet these agencies often struggle in emergencies due to the lack of seamless communications interoperability. A frequent problem is that when first-responders from different agencies or locales arrive at the scene of a disaster, their radios are incompatible because they use different frequencies or protocols. As a result, relief can be uncoordinated, help delayed, and even lives lost.

Digital Transformation Creates a New Way Forward

Various solutions have been explored to remedy the problem—mutual aid channels, gateways for bridging radios, and so on. While these can solve part of the problem, none provide a complete answer. And, none can provide an answer when a disaster results in destruction of radio infrastructure or when help is outside the accessible radio range.

Enter “radio over IP.” It overcomes these limitations and more. But its applicability goes well beyond the public domain; it is changing the way businesses think about their own response to disasters. Major disruptions can strike companies in unique ways that may not have the drama of a tsunami or a tornado—but can have serious consequences for the bottom line when their lines of communication fall short, disaster data is incomplete, or the facts are unclear. Fortunately, new solutions are now within reach that turn streaming data—including video—into analytic insights that change the user experience in real-time and let crisis workers take the most appropriate action in response.

Re-Framing the Problem: It’s Not Your Grandpa’s Radio

With connection to an IP network, radio communications can travel digitally. Public safety agencies can communicate and coordinate a response using any radio system in any location. But traditional radio communication is only part of the story. Use of IP networks also enables other types of voice traffic as well as video and data. This dramatically improves situational awareness. Different responders may have different needs—real-time video analysis, streaming data, and expert opinions as examples. Previously these sorts of communications, if they existed at all, had to be relayed through a dispatcher, creating errors and delays.

Interoperability is the new norm. For example, a push-to-talk (PTT) communication originates from a police officer at the accident site of a chemical truck roll-over requesting a check of a hazardous materials’ digital database for toxicity concerns, and then further expresses the need to locate a HAZMAT expert to remotely view a video feed from the accident scene and suggest how to protect those working at the site.

But why do we need push-to-talk communications at all? For many public agencies and private companies, PTT is a proven communications channel that is convenient, cost effective, and is often legally mandated. PTT remains the choice of many industries for fast, accurate, and coordinated communications where close teamwork is essential. Radio isn’t going to vanish. It is just finding a new way of moving over IP networks.

Business Disasters: Saving Lives. Saving Costs. Boosting Productivity.

Enterprises have similar challenges. A good example is the mining industry. Cave-ins often happen without warning in very remote locations. When mining disasters strike, aid is reactive. And when miners are trapped under a mountain of debris, minutes become precious as the mine owners search for a solution to save them.

Once the lives are saved, it may take months for the mine to be back in operation. The impact can be devastating, not only for the lives of the mine employees, but also the economic vitality of the company they depend on for their livelihood.

Cisco is working with mining companies to be better prepared when disaster strikes. We have developed a solution that provides them with a sophisticated, IP-based communications that can range from simple but vital PTT communications to transmission of streaming video feeds traveling from deep underground to remote rescue experts. It’s called Cisco Instant Connect.

Using Instant Connect, a mining operator can dial up all necessary parties on a PTT device, a ruggedized smartphone, or even place a normal phone call. He can immediately communicate with essential internal personnel or external resources through immediate and continuous communications.

Mining companies are connecting their sites via Wi-Fi and Cisco Premium Mobile Broadband (PMB) This evolution allows use of Cisco Jabber, Cisco Instant Connect, or similar collaboration tools, so a remote expert can be reached to examine the situation using a live video link. This saves valuable time and effort where skilled help can assist in mining operations without traveling to the site.

Think of PMB as “bring your own RF coverage.” It allows customers to put in temporary Long Term Evolution (LTE) “bubbles” where devices can connect and communicate. Now a mining company can install LTE coverage and optimize it based on their individual operational needs.

Instant Communications from the Factory Floor to the Front Office

Another example of how adopting a resilient, IP-based communications solution can contribute to dramatic productivity improvements in a manufacturing environment involves avoiding a major disaster, speeding response to a problem and optimizing business productivity. The manufacturer in this example assembles containers of blood plasma critical to emergency medicine. A shortage of blood plasma can have life or death consequences, so maintaining adequate market supply is essential.

One day there was a stoppage in the manufacturer’s plasma packaging line with no skilled personnel nearby to fix the problem. Fortunately the manufacturer had digitized their alerting software to connect directly over the Internet, as well as to the PTT radios. In turn, the alerting software was integrated with Cisco Instant Connect.

When the software detected the line stoppage, it was automatically communicated to management via both smart phones and two-way radios. Management was able to quickly identify the necessary expert to resolve the issue and dispatched him to the plant immediately. Good news/Bad news: He solved the problem but created another.

When repairing the equipment he accidentally tripped a building evacuation warning. Employee phones received immediate notification. Emergency personnel were instantly patched into the communications channels. By observing the plant using video transmitted through cameras located within the building and through instant communications with supervisors on-site, the emergency team determined that the evacuation alert was a false alarm. They communicated their decision to the onsite team via the Internet and to the PTT radios. Blood plasma production was resumed without further delay. The end-result was that essential supplies of blood plasma reached the market as scheduled and the manufacturer maintained the high levels of productivity that its business required to drive profitability.

Does your company have a disaster response plan with a digital communications strategy at its center? If not, this might be a good place to start your company’s digital transformation journey to avoid unnecessary business risk.


Mala Anand

No Longer with Cisco