Digital Regulation Platform
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Emergency communications

28.08.2020

Introduction

Telecommunications and information and communication technologies (telecom/ICTs) are critical for disaster management and risk reduction as they are used for monitoring the underlying hazards and delivering vital information to all stakeholders, including the most vulnerable societies at risk. The effective management of disaster risk depends on the level of preparedness and communication and information sharing across all levels of government, within communities, and between public and private organizations. In that sense, National Emergency Telecommunications Plans (NETPs) can articulate a strategy to enable and ensure communications availability during all four phases of disaster management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. The implementation of an NETP allows a country to minimize economic losses, mitigate negative impacts to public well-being and above all, reduce human fatalities (ITU-D 2020a).

Why do emergency telecom/ICTs matter?

Telecom/ICTs are becoming ever more important for all of us, and they come to the fore in managing disasters because of the different possibilities they enable. First, telecom/ICTs can help monitor the environment and the underlying hazards, as well as analyse information and data regarding potential disasters. During the mitigation and preparation phases, telecom/ICTs are used to facilitate the implementation of strategies, technologies, and processes that can reduce death and property damage in potential disasters. Also, they are key to facilitating the dissemination of warnings and alerts so the public is aware of actions they must take during an emergency. Second, during the response and recovery phases, that is, during and after a disaster, telecom/ICTs and broadcasting services can provide interoperable and continuous communications capabilities for responders delivering vital information to coordinate response efforts (ITU-D 2020a). They can also help assess the damage and needs of the affected areas and population, identify locations in need of recovery assistance, track recovery and coordinate reconstruction activities, and help connect affected people with their friends and families.

In the case of an emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic, telecom/ICTs can help in assessing the impact of the virus and limiting its spread through facilitating physical distancing while keeping people in touch, for example, through social media or news bulletins, teleworking and tele-education, among other possibilities.

Emergency management systems can take advantage of emerging technologies to become more intelligent, secure, and effective. Particularly important for disaster management can be machine learning and extensive modelling using big data; sensors and actuators in robotics and Internet of Things (IoT) devices; or artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain. These technologies can read, process, and transmit emergency-related data and assist emergency management personnel in their decision-making process during crises.

In that sense, it is important that authorities planning for emergency management consider a multitechnology approach, that is, include all possible mature and emerging technologies available, in order to facilitate the flow of vital information in a timely manner to all agencies and citizens involved in the process.

Which are the different types of hazards?

There are different types of disasters that can come from a number of hazards, which include weather-related hazards such as hurricanes, floods, storms, droughts, landslides, and so on, geological hazards such as earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and biological hazards which include epidemics, and pandemics, or those generated by extraterrestrial phenomena, just to mention a few (see Figure 9.1).

Disasters arising from natural hazards can occur regardless of human activity, so they are more likely to be mitigated than avoided.

Figure 9.1. Types of natural disasters

Source: Guha-Sapir and others 2016, Figure 1.

The number and severity of disasters caused by natural hazards fluctuates year-by-year, as shown in Figure ‎9.2, covering the past three decades. Some years show a high number of disasters as well as a significant loss of life or an elevated number of people affected. Such is the case of the years 2002 and 2015, when the 532 and 440 disaster events reported, respectively, affected more than 650 million people in 2002 and nearly 270 million people in 2015, resulting in almost 330 000 deaths.

On the other hand, some years reflect that there is not necessarily a correlation between the number of events, the number of deaths, or the number of people affected. Such is the case of the year 2000, for example, when more than 500 natural disasters occurred, but only just over 16 000 deaths were reported.

Figure 9.2. Incidence of natural disasters worldwide, 1990-2020a

Note: a. Up to July 2, 2020.

Source: ITU, based on data from the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), https://www.emdat.be.

The previous figures show how different the effects of the various types of disasters can be on the population, and how much the impacts can fluctuate by year. The following are some examples of different disaster events that have occurred in the past two decades:

In 2010, an earthquake in Haiti killed 222 570 people (66.7 per cent of all the deaths that year), while the people affected by that same ground movement (3.4 million) only represented 1.3 per cent of the total population impacted by disasters that year. On the other hand, two floods that also occurred in 2010 in China (riverine flood) and Pakistan (flash flood), respectively, generated 3 676 deaths (1.1 per cent of total deaths that year), but impacted nearly 150 million people, which represents 56.1 per cent of all the persons affected in 2010.

In 2015, a drought caused by erratic rainfall in several provinces[1] in India affected 330 million people (77.1 per cent of the total affected population in 2015), but did not generate any reported deaths.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic is currently affecting or has affected almost every nation worldwide. The number of dead and affected are, as of yet, difficult to estimate, but it will likely have considerable effects on the global population and will account for severe economic impacts beyond the loss of human life.

Different types of disasters may show different effects on the population. Nonetheless, one commonality that they all share is that telecom/ICTs play important roles in the mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery phases of the disaster management process. On one hand, even when disasters like floods and droughts, for example, do not have considerable impacts on telecommunications infrastructure, telecom/ICTs are key to warn or alert the population of incoming adverse weather conditions, or to facilitate coordination of response efforts, such as search and rescue or the distribution of food and the relocation of the population in shelters. On the other hand, during disaster events like earthquakes, which can cause severe damage to telecom/ICT infrastructure and numerous deaths, impacted areas can rely on telecom/ICTs to deliver vital information to first responders and government entities in charge of coordinating the response as well as in assessing the damage or identifying locations in need of recovery assistance, among other benefits. Finally, events such as the ongoing global pandemic also may take advantage of telecom/ICTs to facilitate social interaction, teleworking, education through online platforms and every other activity people perform on a daily basis, while maintaining physical distance to avoid continued propagation of the disease.

Accordingly, just as it is important to include all possible technologies available in order to facilitate the flow of vital information in a timely manner during the development of a NETP (i.e. a multitechnology approach), it is relevant to also consider a multihazard approach when developing or planning for telecom/ICTS for emergency management, and take into account all possible types of disasters that may occur.

What should the regulator do?

Telecom/ICT regulators have major responsibilities in all four phases of disaster management. Taking as a starting point the national law or set of laws that describe high-level, general, and long-term telecommunication/ICT policies for disaster management needs, regulatory authorities need to issue appropriate rules and regulations to implement those national laws. Such rules and regulations should describe in detail the responsibilities, protocols, and strategies that each stakeholder should implement to effectively and efficiently use, provide, or facilitate emergency telecommunication/ICT services during national disasters. Considering that these rules and regulations also apply to telecommunication/ICT operators, it is important for the authorities to be open to understanding and flexible in the face of industry challenges (ITU-D 2020a).

These regulations should be established in advance of the actual occurrence of a disaster during the preparedness phase, with points of contact and general standard operating procedures widely known to all stakeholders. In the response phase, regulations should streamline the process to allow telecommunication/ICT services to be available as soon as possible. Therefore, regulators should consider, for example, expediting or facilitating temporary licences, issuing waivers, reducing any barriers for import/export of equipment, allowing for the free flow of experts who can assist in network restoration, or granting temporary spectrum permits and suspending spectrum/licence fees, among other actions (ITU-D 2020a).

It is important to consider that regulators, apart from the aforementioned responsibilities, must also actively contribute – or even lead – the development and implementation of the National Emergency Telecommunications Plan (NETP), which must include a description of the legislation, regulation, policies, as well as responsibilities of all authorities related to telecom/ICTs for disaster management. This plan should also be aligned with the country’s established administrative structure and governance model for disaster risk management and should be developed based on a multistakeholder approach (see Box 9.1).

Box 9.1. Steps for developing a National Emergency Telecommunication Plan

  1. Conduct desk research to collect and analyse information regarding existing international cooperation, high-level government statements, policies, and regulation on telecom/ICTs for disaster management. Identify stakeholders and governance of the NETP development and acceptance process (ITU-D 2020a, Sections 3, 4, and 6).
  2. Conduct desk research on historical disaster events, hazard profiles (ITU-D 2020a, Section 2), existing early warning and alerting systems, and telecom/ICT networks and services currently deployed (ITU-D 2020a, Section 5).
  3. Hold a workshop to (a) present the overall need, strategy, and methodology to draft the NETP, including the development of capacities and drills, and support for people with specific needs (ITU-D 2020a, Sections 7 and 8); (b) present the initial findings from the desk research; and (c) discuss the findings and receive feedback. Government entities and private stakeholders related to disaster management and the provision of communications should be invited to the workshop.
  4. Solicit input from and/or hold private meetings with each stakeholder to further discuss specific sections of the NETP, e.g. telecom/ICT network inventory with service providers, or specific regulations with national regulatory agencies, and so on.
  5. Develop a first draft of the NETP, including the standard operating procedures, with the above inputs and following the guidelines set forth in this document.
  6. Hold a second workshop to present the draft NETP developed in step 5. Receive additional feedback and modify the draft NETP as needed.
  7. Request a peer review of the draft NETP from experts in the field. Also invite government entities and private stakeholders to review and comment on the NETP draft.
  8. Review comments made to the draft NETP and make any necessary modifications to finalize the NETP.
  9. Periodically review and update the NETP after every drill and operation to incorporate lessons learned, or at least every three years if no drill and operation occurs.

Source: ITU-D 2020a, Section 2.4.

What is the disaster management process?

The disaster risk management process adopted internationally by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) consists of four phases (ITU-D 2020a): mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery, as described below (see Figure 9.3).

Figure 9.3. Phases of disaster management

Source: ITU-D 2020a, Figure 3.

Mitigation: This phase seeks to carry out actions that lessen the likelihood of future disasters or the severity of their effects. The mitigation phase includes activities such as identifying existing risks, developing vulnerability assessments, and the construction or maintenance of the telecommunications infrastructure necessary to mitigate possible disasters.

Preparedness: This phase comprises developing and testing plans to save lives and minimize disaster damage, ensuring readiness of the people and materials needed for disaster response, and issuing warnings about imminent disasters. Actions during this phase include the establishment of early warning systems, training, operational processes, and the development and implementation of written plans and procedures, such as a NETP.

Response: This phase aims at providing emergency assistance, stabilizing the situation once a disaster has occurred, and reducing the chances of secondary damage. It includes activities such as search and rescue operations, the evacuation of affected areas, the opening of shelters, and distribution of food, among others. The role of telecom/ICTs during this phase is vital to connect stakeholders during the emergency response, especially considering that several entities carry out a variety of activities and procedures variously at the local, national and international levels.

Recovery: The recovery phase focuses on providing the necessary aid to return to the initial levels of safety and functionality the community had before the disaster. Activities during this phase include debris removal, infrastructure reconstruction, and restoration of public sector operations, among others. This restoration and reconstruction must include the telecom/ICT infrastructure, especially because of the fundamental role that the sector plays within the community.

Mitigation phase

During this phase, telecom/ICTs play the role of disseminating information on how to mitigate the impacts of a possible disaster, and of supporting the implementation of strategies, technologies, and processes that can reduce those negative effects (ITU-D 2020a). In that sense, the telecom/ICT regulator is central to promoting the resiliency of critical telecom/ICT infrastructure, and to facilitate actions such as maintaining a periodically updated database that generates maps with all existing telecom/ICT networks; or a vulnerability and risk analysis of all telecom/ICT networks. In addition, telecom/ICT regulations during the mitigation phase should consider regulatory actions like the following (ITU-D 2020a):

During the mitigation phase, an updated map of risks to, and vulnerabilities of, telecom/ICT networks should be in place in the country. This should be developed based on the national risk assessment or vulnerability maps for the country, and it should be developed for every hazard and for every region that may be at risk. It is essential to know the status of telecommunications, including what telecommunications carriers need to enable continued operation or restoration of networks and to take appropriate measures in advance to support the ability of carriers to exercise continuity plans in the event of a disaster (ITU-D 2020a).

According to the World Bank, different types of hazards can have distinct levels of impacts on telecommunications infrastructure. For example, earthquakes can have high negative effects on submarine cables and terrestrial underground cables, and medium effects on overland terrestrial cables, data centres, and wireless transmission antennas, as shown in Table ‎9.1.

The COVID-19 pandemic, on the other hand, is a type of disaster that does not directly damage physical infrastructure, but can cause indirect impacts such as network congestion owing to an increase in data traffic on both wired and wireless networks as confinement measures force a higher online communication demand. In consequence, the level of impact on the telecommunications infrastructure for this hazard could be considered low or medium in every case depending on the severity and duration of the measures taken to face the pandemic.

Table 9.1. Hazard effects on telecommunications infrastructure

Note: H: High; M: Medium; L: Low.

Source: Hallegatte, Rentschler, and Rozenberg 2019, Table 4.1.

Also, this phase should require considering infrastructure duplication. Making networks resilient calls for the elimination of single points of failure, especially for backbone cables and critical equipment such as authentication servers. Costs can be reduced by ensuring that competing operators have their own separately routed and equipped networks but agree that after a disaster they will make their networks available to each other. Such arrangements need care, both because they could weaken competition and because routes that are disjointed in one layer of a network could well be sharing a lower layer. However, having separately routed networks is not enough: there should actually be two routes from any point to any other point (except in “last mile” wireline access to customers). For this purpose, every network that provides interconnection services should offer two points of interconnection to networks that have no points of interconnection of their own.

Finally, mitigation should also comprise considering regulatory forbearance. External experts and equipment (including replacement or specialized equipment) are often needed urgently after a disaster strike. Therefore, before the occurrence of a disaster, it is important to have in place specific legislation that enables the arrival and timely installation of foreign communications equipment in the country, as well as the arrival of personnel who use emergency ICTs during catastrophes. Some of these goals might be achieved by national adoption of the Tampere Convention on the Provision of Telecommunication Resources for Disaster Mitigation and Relief Operations (ITU-D 1998). This international treaty aims to facilitate the use of telecommunication resources during the response and recovery phases of disaster management by establishing a framework for international cooperation between states, non-governmental entities, and intergovernmental organizations. The Tampere Convention acknowledges the importance of countries temporarily abstaining from the application of national legislation on imports, licensing, and use of communications equipment during and after disasters, in order to facilitate the use of telecom/ICTs by emergency response teams. It also guarantees legal immunity to personnel who use emergency ICTs during catastrophes. In so doing, the Tampere Convention also ensures respect for the sovereignty of the country receiving assistance by giving the receiving state full control over the initiation and termination of the assistance, as well as the power to reject all or part of the assistance offered (ITU-D 2020a).

Preparedness phase

Telecom/ICTs in this phase of disaster management are essential for facilitating the dissemination of information and alerts so that the public is aware of the actions they must take during an emergency. Telecom/ICTs also facilitate the coordination and communication of the people involved in disaster management in this phase of response. In particular, key uses of telecom/ICTs in this phase are to provide early warnings and alerts and to develop or strengthen communications mechanisms. During the preparedness phase, it is important to develop the capacities of the personnel in charge of communications by executing training and drills, and to develop operational processes regarding communications by the establishment of written plans and procedures, such as the National Emergency Telecommunication Plan (ITU-D 2020a; ITU-D 2020b).

Drills and exercises, in particular, should include as many different stakeholders as possible from government, businesses, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as they enable stakeholders to rehearse procedures, identify gaps, and test plans that will come into effect during real emergency response operations. Also, during this phase, the outreach of the information given must be considered, as it should include not only certain key actors but the general public as well. Telecommunication providers, for example, can be expected to tell their customers about their own products, but not necessarily about communications more generally. In that sense, the regulator should require that telecommunication operators inform not just their employees but also their customers about the telecommunications plan before and after disasters. Included in such information should be explanations of warning messages, national emergency phone numbers, and rules and conventions to be applied after disasters. Additionally, this information should be repeated for each generation, and be disseminated by several different media (such as word of mouth, posters, newspapers, television broadcasts, radio broadcasts, web pages and social media), as it should reach homes, clubs, workplaces, schools, and rural communities.

Along with the above, the preparedness phase comprises hazard monitoring and forecasting. Monitoring environmental conditions using specialized equipment has long been a necessary part of preparedness. In this regard, it is important to consider that equipment has been falling in cost and rising in capability, and there are now many cheap and portable sensors and actuators available in IoT devices that can be powered using solar panels or long-life batteries that can communicate over long-range wireless networks. They are also well suited to risky and remote locations. Regarding hazard forecasting, which can demonstrate that a hazard is becoming worse and help determine whether warnings should be issued, there are now possibilities of exploiting cheap sensors, solar panels, and wireless networks from the IoT. In relation to disseminating these warnings, the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) could be considered, as it is a well-established mechanism for ensuring that early warnings and alerts are transmitted by different media (WMO 2012).

Response phase

The role of telecom/ICTs during this phase is vital to connect stakeholders that provide emergency assistance, as well as to help in stabilizing the situation once a disaster has occurred, and reducing the chances of secondary damage.

Following a disaster, networks might need to be repaired and supplemented by other elements. Spare equipment might need to be transported from relatively safe locations or even imported into the country. Temporary mobile base stations, sometimes with extensible masts, such as cells on wheels (COWs) and cells on light trucks (COLTs), have various commercial uses and are commonly available in disasters (GSMA 2020). If there is too little terrestrial connectivity, satellite networks might be used instead; while in circumstances where mobile base stations or the satellite network are not available, some unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and high-altitude platform stations (HAPS) could be helpful, as they can relay traffic widely and observe sites from above (Li 2017).

During this phase, telecom/ICTs may also be helpful in assessing damage. Data about the impact of a disaster on people and assets must be collected, disseminated, and processed. Existing sensing equipment might still be able to operate and communicate useful readings. Aerial survey planes, satellites, and high-altitude UAVs can give broad pictures; drones, which are low altitude UAVs, can provide further detail when equipped with lights and cameras. Also, knowing where people are located is particularly important so that relief efforts can be efficient and effective. For this purpose, as mobile phones transmit to nearby base stations, population movements can be assessed by tracking which phones use which base stations (Bengtsson and others 2011). Mobile phone call detail records provide the information needed. Regarding search and rescue work, robots equipped with sensors and drones can be a helpful complement to humans and dogs.

Immediately after major disasters, many national and international organizations collect and analyse information in order to plan the response. Therefore, it is relevant that countries develop National Emergency Management Plans and, in the case of telecom/ICTs, National Emergency Telecommunications Plans with a multistakeholder approach, that take into account all agencies and people involved in the emergency management process, whether they are national or international actors.

Recovery phase

The recovery phase focuses on activities such as removal of debris, restoration of public sector operations, and reconstruction of infrastructure, including telecommunication infrastructure. Telecom/ICT networks and services should be used in this phase to help assess the damage and needs of the affected areas and population, identify locations in need of recovery assistance, track recovery activities, and coordinate reconstruction activities (ITU-D 2020a).

After a disaster, reviewing the available lessons learned is essential to reducing the effects of the next one. Therefore, reviews can be useful to consider what worked well and what needs improvement at national and local levels.

Reconstruction of the telecommunications infrastructure should follow soon after the disaster, and should consider rebuilding more resilient telecom/ICT network infrastructure and include potential redundant network deployments wherever possible to prepare for future disasters. Government and the private sector should also take advantage of the opportunity to rebuild relevant telecom/ICT infrastructure and, where possible, to deploy technologies that are more resilient, efficient, and less expensive (ITU-D 2020a).

In reconstructing their networks, operators can take the opportunity to ensure that they can conveniently monitor and control network nodes and supervise sensors. In particular, they might install sensors in outside plants, for reporting properties like temperature and humidity, and informing employees about urgent priorities. In utility sectors other than telecommunications, such as electricity and water, they might also stimulate actuators.

On the other hand, the regulator needs to monitor improvements so that the infrastructure is “built back better.” In particular, the infrastructure as a whole (though not necessarily the network of any individual operator) needs to be resilient enough to deal with the next disaster and arrangements for coordination need to be put in place and practised.

Endnotes

  1. Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland; Maharashtra, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Jharkand, and Odisha.

References

Christian, E., 2012. “Introducing the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP).” https://etrp.wmo.int/pluginfile.php/16462/mod_resource/content/0/CAP-101-Notes.pdf.

GSMA, 2020. Building a Resilient Industry: How Mobile Network Operators Prepare for and Respond to Natural Disasters. London: GSMA. https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/TWP5861_BuildingAResilientIndustry_v003.pdf.

Guha-Sapir, D., P. Hoyois, P. Wallemacq, and R. Below. 2016. Annual Disaster Statistical Review 2016: The Numbers and Trends. Brussels: CRED. http://emdat.be/sites/default/files/adsr_2016.pdf.

Hallegatte, Stephane, Jun Rentschler, and Julie Rozenberg. 2019. Lifelines: The Resilient Infrastructure Opportunity. Washington, DC: World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/31805.

ITU-D. 2020a. ITU Guidelines for National Emergency Telecommunication Plans. Geneva: International Telecommunication Union. https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Emergency-Telecommunications/Documents/2020/NETP-guidelines.pdf.

ITU-D. 2020b. Emergency Telecommunications Table-Top Simulation Guide. Geneva: International Telecommunication Union. https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Emergency-Telecommunications/Documents/Publications/2020/TTX_Guide.pdf.

ITU-D. 1998. Tampere Convention on the Provision of Telecommunication Resources for Disaster Mitigation and Relief Operations. Geneva: International Telecommunication Union. https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Emergency-Telecommunications/Documents/Tampere_Convention/Tampere_convention.pdf.

Li, A. 2017. “Alphabet Deployed Emergency LTE to Puerto Rico with Project Loon in Under a Month.” 9TO5Google. October 20, 2017. https://9to5google.com/2017/10/20/alphabet-x-project-loon-puerto-rico-live/.