In my youth, I lost a close friend in a sailing accident. Her boat had all the proper equipment she would need if she were in distress — marine radios, an emergency position indicating radio beacon and other safety equipment — but she got separated from the boat and lost all access to her gear.

This tragedy motivated me and my co-founder to develop a new communications solution that would always be accessible in a moment of need. On this journey, we’ve had to ask ourselves two essential questions: How is the tech we use in crisis situations failing us, and how can companies better prepare themselves for communication systems failing during an emergency?

What Is a PACE Plan?

Primary: an organization’s day-to-day communication method.

Alternate: the backup to the primary communication method.

Contingency: the method used when both the primary and alternate communication methods are unavailable.

Emergency: the last resort.

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Form a PACE Plan

In an era marked by escalating threats of natural disasters and security concerns at large-scale events, maintaining resilient communication channels is an imperative. These situations become particularly dangerous when traditional networks — like radios or LTE — face disruptions or lack the bandwidth and flexibility needed for complex scenarios, leaving emergency responders and security personnel disconnected and at risk.

For instance, while the U.S. specifically designed the broadband network FirstNet to mitigate risks associated with public networks for first responders and public safety agencies, it still has barriers. It provides limited network coverage, relies on terrestrial infrastructure and most importantly is not compatible with legacy systems still used by many agencies, severely impacting interoperability.

This is where PACE planning becomes crucial. A PACE plan requires the establishment of a primary, alternate, contingency and emergency communication method, empowering agencies to establish network redundancy. If one communication channel fails, another is available, increasing the overall reliability of communication systems.

Agencies should consider and prepare for potential network congestion, infrastructure damage or interference during emergencies. Technology that provides resilient and adaptable communication in remote, disaster-stricken environments plays a pivotal role within the PACE plan. Tools that function independently of traditional networks, alongside other communication methods, help agencies maintain vital situational awareness when it matters most, ensuring the success of emergency response operations.

 

Eliminate Single Points of Failure

State and local agencies are now recognizing the importance of incorporating emerging technologies into their operations. Similar to FirstNet, teams can use emerging technology like 5G and the Internet of Things to lay the communications foundation for modern emergency management, although these technologies also come with limitations. 5G and IoT may offer high-speed data transfer and connectivity benefits, but they are often urban-centric and also reliant on terrestrial infrastructure.

To make the most of new communication technology, agencies should consider conducting joint training exercises with their technology partners to emulate the types of emergencies in which responders operate. Such simulations are invaluable for identifying gaps in communication capabilities and devising strategies to build communication durability.

To prepare for these gaps, companies should prioritize eliminating single points of failure — a part of a system that, if it malfunctioned, would cause an entire system to fail — in their communication systems. By ensuring uninterrupted communication channels, organizations not only enhance their overall preparedness but also maintain operational continuity during crises.

 

How Seamless Communication Saves Lives

Historically, first responders have depended on GPS-enabled radios limited by range restrictions and short battery lives. When disaster strikes, communications infrastructure is typically the first to go.

In times of crisis, seamless communication and a comprehensive understanding of the evolving situation are the bedrock of effective emergency management operations. Interagency collaboration, involving multiple entities such as fire departments, medical teams and the U.S. National Guard, necessitates an interoperable network infrastructure that can withstand and adapt to the changing circumstances posed by disasters.

Without reliable communication, the distribution of resources becomes a formidable challenge, as agencies struggle to relay real-time information about the evolving situation. The consequence is a potential mismatch between the severity of the crisis and the resources deployed, putting both responders and communities in danger.

For example, in July 2022, heavy rainfall led to unprecedented flash flooding in areas of eastern Kentucky. Entire homes were swept away by flood waters and communications infrastructure, including the primary radio network used by public safety, was completely wiped out. Over 600 helicopter rescues and countless swift water rescues by boat were needed to evacuate people who were trapped by the quickly rising flood waters. The state-led operation was struggling due to the lack of reliable communications, which was only exacerbated by the disparate nature of communication technologies used by different agencies. 

In response, the state deployed its Army and Air National Guard units to help with search and rescue efforts. The Air National Guard unit (123rd STS) conducted rescue operations via boat and helicopter. As existing users of our technology, they were quickly able to maneuver and coordinate air-to-ground disaster response across the state. The 123rd STS as a single unit reported significant success due to their ability to maintain uninterrupted communications and situational awareness.

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A Strong Communications Architecture

In the dynamic and unpredictable landscape of emergency management, having a communication system that is interoperable, rapidly deployable and scalable is essential for ensuring the safety of communities and responders alike.

Developing a communications architecture that maximizes interoperability and empowers interagency teams to establish a common network in minutes is essential. As mission teams focus on adapting new technologies to address mounting pressures on their communications infrastructure, we must continue to make strides in transforming the way teams stay connected.

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