The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts this year’s upcoming hurricane season could be one for the record books due to unusually warm water temperatures in the Atlantic and Caribbean oceans. Careful planning and execution is always key to an effective emergency response, but it will be particularly important this season when Covid-19 adds another degree of difficulty.
When most people think of hurricane response, they think of local emergency personnel, non-profit support and assistance from national governments. But in the United States, for-profit companies are a critical part of the response as well. When telephone wires get knocked down, for instance, the government doesn't repair them — telecom companies do. But the relationship goes deeper.
The federal government also contracts with AT&T Inc. for FirstNet, an alternative wireless network with a unique spectrum for first responders. One key function of this network is a fleet of trucks with self-contained generators and antennae that act as mobile cell towers in the aftermath of disaster.
The rigs were flown into Puerto Rico after 2017’s Hurricane Maria and proved so valuable that they actually traveled with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) teams after Hurricane Michael the following year, said Chris Sambar, EVP of Technology Operations at AT&T.
Dozens of FirstNet trucks are currently parked near hospitals and mobile testing sites across the nation, boosting networks that are congested due to the ongoing pandemic.
Just as the coronavirus has put a strain on emergency personnel, the pandemic is testing AT&T’s response system as well. “We've never had something of this scale,” said Chris Sambar, EVP of Technology Operations at AT&T. “Even back-to-back hurricanes aren’t national.'
Yet heading into the 2020 hurricane season, AT&T has found it challenging to maintain even normal emergency repair operations due to the virus. The company usually sends two workers out in each truck. Now those trucks are single occupancy. ”Everything is slowed down” Sambar said. Personnel working in dispatch yards, where supplies including generators and fuel are stored have also been hampered by the need to stay six feet apart.
Despite the social-distancing difficulties, Sambar is confident AT&T systems are ready. “We think everything is solidified and stable and are ready for this new normal,” he said. But “if things spike up again in the middle of hurricane season—well that could be a challenge.”
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