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O N L I N E  E X C L U S I V E

U.S. Officials Study Communications After Japanese Earthquake

May 11, 2011

Photo courtesy Patrick Fuller/IFRC
 
 
The United States is working to learn as much as possible about communications following the March 11 earthquake in Japan and the subsequent tsunami to better prepare for potential disasters here. “It is an unfortunate irony that disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes often provide the best opportunity to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of communications infrastructure,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski at last week’s forum on earthquake communications preparedness. During the forum, panelists discussed lessons learned from the Japanese earthquake, as well as other best practices for earthquakes, which tend to do the most damage to infrastructure and create the longest periods of outages compared to other natural disasters.
 
The Japanese earthquake, the largest in the country’s history, according to Masaru Fujino, counselor from the Embassy of Japan in the United States, killed more than 14,000 people, had 400 after shocks over the magnitude of 5, and caused a tsunami as high as 50 feet in one Japanese city.
 
In 2006, Japan introduced its earthquake early warning system that triggers automated warnings to the public when a magnitude 5 or greater is detected, said James Miller, senior attorney advisor for the electromagnetic compatible division of the Office of Engineering and Technology for the FCC. There are 4,200 sites for seismic readings that measure the time gap between the primary wave and second wave. “The second waves often do the most damage,” Fujino said. “Our warning system lets residents know the second wave is coming via TV and radio, cell phone alerts, and municipal governments make the announcement over a loud speaker, giving them the few minutes necessary to prepare for a quake.”
 
However, the system does have its limitations; the accuracy of the alerts is not always what it should be, Fujino said. “Of the 70 alerts made since March 11, 20 of those alerts were for after shocks that were not as powerful as predicted (a magnitude 5 or greater).”
 
Broadband is also used successfully in Japan for emergency alerts. “The Japanese used broadband to mitigate the impact of the earthquake and tsunami, and their efforts offer examples for us,” Genachowski said. “For example, the Japan Meteorological Agency’s earthquake early warning system relied on broadband to automatically issue alerts via cell phones and TV after the first, less harmful earthquake shock wave, providing a short window for people to prepare for the more powerful shock wave that followed. The broadband-based warning system also caused many energy plants, industrial facilities and transportation services to shut down automatically, averting problems at these locations.”
 
Another lesson drawn from Japan is the redundancy of its wireless mesh network, which automatically rerouted signals over alternate paths when one route was destroyed. Residents in Japan were able to use their wireless devices to access the Internet and post on message boards to report their status and check for updates from family and friends.
 
Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, believes the public can at times help get information to public-safety workers and serve as a resource. “We talk about communications and we talk about the public, and oftentimes, we pit one against the other,” Fugate said. “With next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1), the public can provide pictures and video after a natural disaster. Sometimes public safety can get a better sense of the extent of damage from people reporting in.”
 
Fugate said that after the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, responders learned the importance of having phone and cell banks to help people keep their phones charged. “Text messaging was the primary means of giving and receiving information,” Fugate said.
 
Texts are also a great way to send alerts to residents, said Pete Simpson, senior vice president of Trilogy Communications. “Not everyone has smartphones, but almost everyone has the capability to receive an short message service (SMS) text,” Simpson said. “And all the carriers have the capability to send an alert to all of their subscribers.”
 
Three of the seven trans-Pacific undersea cables had sections of their systems badly damaged in the Japan earthquake. These undersea cable systems are expected to be restored soon, but because of both the redundancy and resiliency of the undersea cable networks, international communications to Japan continued even days immediately following the earthquake. “Such redundancy is generally in place for undersea cable systems that serve the United States,” Genachowski said. “The commission keeps a close eye on the resiliency of the undersea cable networks, and Japan shows us why it is important to be vigilant.”
 
The United States doesn’t have a comparable earthquake warning system. “It’s something we should consider, especially for our regions that are most prone to earthquakes,” Genachowski said. The United States also doesn’t have a unifying tsunami warning system yet either, said William Carwile, associate administrator of response and recovery for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
 
“The rapid migration of our nation’s infrastructure from older legacy technologies to newer IP-based broadband technologies requires us to further ensure that these modern networks can respond to major outages caused by natural disasters,” Genachowski said. “We need a better understanding of how to minimize outages across all communications platforms and how we can strengthen the reliability of emergency communications, while balancing the limited resources of communications carriers.”
 
The state of California is researching some applications that would monitor telemetries on freeways that will help detect earthquakes early enough to send warning alerts, according to Karen Wong, deputy director of the public-safety communications office for the California Technology Office.
 
FEMA and the FCC also manage emergency alert systems through the Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS), a next-generation alert warning system. Next year the program will be supplemented by the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), which will have the capability to deliver mobile alerts to cell phones, said Anita Dey, senior regional specialist for Asia in the International Bureau of the FCC. “We hope to meet or beat our April 7, 2012, deadline,” Dey said.
 
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