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Red Cross comm team ready for disasters

IT system's design is based on experience from years of disaster experience, says Red Cross IT exec

While most businesses back up data and records as potential disasters approach, the American Red Cross has a communications and information systems infrastructure built to bring key data into areas ravaged by storms like Hurricane Irene .

"We have a very robust communications system that's been designed through the years based on our experience of what works and what doesn't," said Keith Robertory, manager of national disaster emergency communications for the American National Red Cross in Washington. "We're a little different than a typical IT shop preparing for business continuity, because we're always running toward a disaster area."

Robertory said he has learned from six years in his post that Red Cross volunteers in disaster areas need two-way radios, cell phones that support all major cellular carriers satellite phones. The organization also sends satellite trucks carrying 8,000 watt generators that can power small-site cellular transmitters in disaster areas.

The two-way radios must be able to communicate over several bands designed for public safety, business and amateur radios, he said.

During Hurricane Irene and its aftermath, the Red Cross has deployed "thousands" of volunteers all along the East Coast, he said. About 100 of the volunteers have been trained to set up satellite dishes, servers, network routers and other equipment.

On Saturday night, the Red Cross said it sheltered some 27,000 refugees of Irene along the East Coast.

Only Robertory and three members on his staff are paid; the rest donate their time.

The Red Cross has a major advantage in aiding people during disasters because it already has buildings and operations with backup power in communities across the nation, he noted.

"We are very risk-conscious," Robertory said, noting that rescue teams guard against setting up communications areas of likely evacuation. "We select the right areas based on experience."

Robertory called Irene a "a large disaster in terms of our response because it's so spread out." He said that hurricanes on the East Coast often move along hundreds of miles of coastline, while Gulf Coast hurricanes typically directly strike one area and then lose power as they move inland.

"Tropical storms carry large amounts of water, so we have had flooding in New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and Vermont," Robertory noted. "We have to see if we can into those areas. That's going to be our cornerstone. If they don't have power, we have satellite trucks and they have 8000-watt generators."

Over the years, Robertory said he has learned to find easy-to-use technology for volunteers.

The Red Cross has a warehouse of 1,800 cell phones and 60 satellite phones, though volunteers typically rely on the cell phones because they are more familiar with them.

He noted that users of push-to-talk walkie-talkie phones from companies like Nextel typically start dialing on its keypad rather than use the push-to-talk feature.

In general, Robertory said he avoids using emerging technology for disaster response.

"That's the last place I want to use emerging technologies," he said. "Most people in disaster response would be happy if they had the current state-of-the-art stuff that's used in most Fortune 500 companies."

The Red Cross supports its communications and other relief efforts with donations.

Officials estimated the response to Irene will cost millions of dollars. Donations to help with the effort can be made at www.redcross.org or by texting REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Donations can be made to local chapters, or mailed to American Red Cross, P.S. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen , or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .

Read more about business continuity in Computerworld's Business Continuity Topic Center.


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