Explained | How fires, floods and hurricanes create deadly pockets of information isolation

Constructing a map of the telecommunications network locations that are most threatened by disasters is still a work in progress, according to several experts.
Last Updated : 11 September 2023, 13:28 IST

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For Scientitic American by Timmy Broderick

When sudden wildfires ravaged the Hawaiian island of Maui this August, one of the first casualties was the local telecommunications grid. As people scrambled to escape the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century, their cell phone service vanished. The resulting inability to contact loved ones, hear weather forecasts or plan an escape route turned a bad situation dire. Similar scenes recently played out in Canada’s Northwest Territories when wildfires there damaged communication infrastructure.

“Every disaster I’ve been a part of, every disaster I’ve read about, communications are the first to go,” says Alison Poste, an emergency management professional based in British Columbia. “It’s a really big challenge. For those who don’t have cell phone access and those who don't have access to alerting tools, we don’t know what to do.” Disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes and flooding are increasing in both frequency and intensity. Ensuring that everyone confronting such a disaster—residents, first responders and emergency managers alike—has the means to properly communicate is critical. That effort faces a sprawling array of obstacles, but a scattering of individuals, businesses and local governments are working to overcome them.

In most communities, cell phones are the locus of information gathering and distribution during a disaster. Local governments can send text alerts with essential updates, and until recently, emergency managers used X, formerly known as Twitter, to disseminate critical information. There are other emergency notification tools, including the apps Alertable and Everbridge. But these resources rely on users having an active cell signal—and cell towers and other infrastructure can be quickly disabled in a fire, flood or other disaster, creating a chaotic and dangerous information bottleneck.

“If you lose your phone, and it’s a perfectly normal Tuesday..., you’re really in a bad way, right?” says Leysia Palen, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, who studies disaster informatics. “If we lose it in a normal situation, then certainly we’re going to have trouble in a disaster situation.” Palen says that before the advent of cell phones and social media, most people facing a disaster cobbled together information from several sources such as radio, neighbours and television news. This is still the case to some extent. But today’s near-exclusive reliance on cell phones makes telecommunications grids crucial.

These networks of towers, antennas and wires are vulnerable at multiple points.

“The grids are becoming more interdependent,” says Susanne Jul, an emergency management consultant.

“The grid can fail in one place, and it may not be my local cell tower that burned, but it may be a communication center some miles away, and so we failed to get the signal through.”

When a failure like this happens, backup generators and portable cell sites that temporarily restore service to a small area can help communities get their communications back online. Such tools often arrive only after a disaster’s peak, however.

Constructing a map of the telecommunications network locations that are most threatened by disasters is still a work in progress, according to several experts. The situation is complicated by the fact that information about existing telecommunications infrastructure is hard to come by: Private companies such as AT&T and Xfinity do not release detailed information on where their cell towers, antennas and other infrastructure components are located to researchers or the public, according to Seth Guikema, a risk analyst and a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan. The Federal Communications Commission provides data on what percentage of cell towers have experienced outages, but these reports don’t include location information that is fine enough for independent researchers to accurately map the network. “The cell companies don’t want to share it if they do have it. I’ve been in meetings with the federal government with the cell companies, and they treat that data as very private,” Guikema says.

A more proactive option would be to make grids less vulnerable in the first place. Yet different types of disasters affect their infrastructure in different ways. Hurricanes whip cell towers around, so carriers make sure these structures can withstand high winds, such as those up to 110 miles per hour. The heat and flames from wildfires tend to rise upward, so they do not usually damage underground fiber-optic cables. They can still threaten towers, antennas and other above-ground infrastructure, however. Removing flammable fuel, including trees and brush, near these structures would help ensure they survive the next wildfire, Guikema says.

If all grid-protection attempts fail, there are some tools that communities and emergency managers can use to survive the resulting no-cellular landscape. Sirens and AM radio broadcasts remain important, and more sophisticated options are also available. But technologies that people aren’t used to using regularly might not be very helpful in an emergency, in which speed can make the difference between life and death. So unless you’re a boat operator, skip the satellite phone, Jul recommends. “The tool you have in your hand or your pocket is what we need to be using,” she says.

The best resource, though, might be a person’s surrounding community. When the Marshall Fire blazed through atmospheric scientist Rebecca Morss’s Boulder, Colo., neighbourhood in 2021, she relied on her phone and her neighbors to navigate the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, she says. Morss and her family evacuated as soon as they saw smoke early in the day, and in the scramble, they left their two cats behind. Morss wanted to head back for her pets, so she texted a neighbor to check whether it would be safe to return. “She called me right back, and she's like, ‘No, the streets are on fire. The hills are on fire,’” says Morss, who is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. (Luckily for the cats, Loretta and Chunky Jenkins, the fire stopped one block short of Morss’s house.)

Even with Morss’s 20 years of experience researching weather and risk communication during disasters, she ultimately relied on that local friend as an effective way to get the information she needed. And that kind of human network is just as crucial as the telecommunications grid. “We have a long history of doing this pre-cell phone,” Morss says. “Often the first responders are the local people in the community until officials can get there. Thirty or 40 years ago, that's what people did.” As disasters continue apace, and technology struggles to keep up, more and more communities will need to tap into this age-old tool.

Published 11 September 2023, 13:28 IST

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