Despite the many incredible advancements that have made our world safer and more predictable, there are places so remote, with weather so extreme, that something as simple as driving on a highway is downright dangerous. And natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes can wreak havoc and disrupt entire regions.
While we can’t control nature, thanks to secure networks from Cisco, we can help keep drivers safer in the harshest of environments and also establish emergency communications in the wake of natural disasters and other crises.
Improving Safety on Remote, Dangerous Roads
The Elliott and Dalton highways, which run 500 miles through Alaska’s isolated northern reaches, are among the nation’s most treacherous roads. Only 125 miles of the two highways are paved. Communications in this remote wilderness are nearly impossible.
But the roads are critical for transporting goods and services to and from Deadhorse and the massive Prudhoe Bay oil field on the Alaska North Slope. Nearly 240 trucks need to use these roads every day. Traveling on these highways is risky in the best conditions and downright dangerous in extreme weather. At times, fast-running water can accumulate up to three feet deep—in below-zero temperatures.
Until recently, there was no communications infrastructure and no way to pinpoint where a distress call originated. “Life safety is everything,” says Jeff Russell, Dalton area superintendent of the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities. “We wanted to be able to get on a radio and call for help, whether it’s to provide basic safety for our staff on the road or for the public that travels it.”
With no electricity available along the highways and the high cost of running power lines, deploying multiple radio repeater substations wasn’t feasible. Solar power requires more sunlight than Alaska gets during much of the year. Even delivering fuel to generators by helicopter would be nearly impossible due to unforgiving weather and lingering subzero temperatures.
The existing Cisco infrastructure came into play when the transportation department embarked on a phone system upgrade. The state created a microwave communications network that used Cisco Connected Roadways solutions, Cisco Unified Communications solutions, and Cisco Instant Connect to improve emergency response and communication on these lonely stretches of road.
Cisco worked with AT&T, New Horizons Telecom, and the Enterprise Technology Services Division of the Alaska Department of Administration to plan and deploy communications. AT&T-owned towers deliver the microwave communication transport. Planning and field condition surveys ensured that the timing, logistics, and implementation were all synchronized. As the system migration began, Cisco and its partners worked to ensure reliable functionality and integration of the system’s various elements, such as voice commands being consistent across the board.
Since this was Alaska, radio tower construction began in the spring and hardware was installed throughout the summer months, which provided enough time to place the equipment in above-ground enclosures that could withstand the state’s harsh winter elements.
While the Elliott and Dalton highways are still lonely and treacherous, drivers now have peace of mind. In particular, Cisco Instant Connect drives critical communication between IP phones, dispatchers, mobile phones, and two-way radios on Alaska’s IP network.
“We now have the all-call channel,” Russell says. “If anyone needs help, they can instantly get on that channel and communicate.”
After the system was deployed, ice dams on the Sag River caused water to flow onto the Dalton Highway. Heavy snowfall, wind, and subzero temperatures combined to create a miles-long sheet of ice that effectively shut down the road. But thanks to the communication system created by Cisco and its partners, the state was able to dispatch vital equipment and people to clear the highway.
Now that the Connected Roadways system makes it possible to quickly determine highway conditions, drivers of plows and other emergency vehicles know what they’re driving into. “Before, when an air ambulance had to fly into the town of Manley and needed a runway-condition report, the only way to do that was to call the closest station and have someone find the airport manager. It could take all day to get the condition report,” Russell says. Today, the runway can be groomed and ready in 90 minutes.
In the future, the state may share the radio channels with the Alaska Trucking Association, enabling a faster response in the event of an accident.
Connecting Communities During and After Crises
The process of planning for communications in harsh weather is somewhat predictable, but natural disasters are a different story. The element of surprise requires getting systems up and running quickly—without the benefit of such planning.
When Tropical Cyclone Pam virtually flattened the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu in 2015, 90 percent of the buildings were destroyed. There was almost nothing to work with, but the government and first responders needed emergency communications to aid the 132,000 people affected by the disaster.
Among the first on the scene was the Cisco Tactical Operations (TacOps) team, which supports rescue efforts by quickly establishing highly secure communication systems on the ground during emergencies. The team—which provides aid free of charge—has assisted in disasters ranging from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to earthquakes in Ecuador and Nepal to tornadoes in Oklahoma. It’s also established communication networks to assist with the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, the Ebola-virus outbreak in West Africa, and other human crises.
In Vanuatu, the TacOps team’s first challenge was a geographical one. The country comprises 80 islands, meaning the team needed to first determine where infrastructure was needed and which locations had power.
“The technology is the easy part, but logistics and coordination are complicated,” says Sue-Lynn Hinson, manager of the TacOps team. “When you go into a place and transportation is disabled, how do you get from place to place, and who do you coordinate with? Part of our team specializes in logistics coordination to figure out who to work with and security issues.”
Australian Army Black Hawk helicopters airlifted 3,000 pounds of equipment needed to get connectivity to 15 critical locations in Vanuatu. That included Cisco networking components to reconstitute the government network and Rapid Response Kits, which are each the size of a standard airline carry-on bag but pack the power of the Cisco Meraki enterprise-networking system, to get small managed cloud networks up and running quickly.
The TacOps team was able to restore the networks for the major trauma hospital in Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital and largest city. It also brought the national disaster management office, the president’s office, parliament, the forestry ministry, and other government offices back online, and it provided humanitarian aid workers on the island of Tanna with communications. The team completed the entire process in just five days.
“When we went to Vanuatu specifically, many of the government ministries had resorted to paper and pencil. The networks being down hindered an effective government response to the emergency,” recalls Rakesh Bharania, a Cisco disaster technologist. “Bringing back the networks allowed them to use their IT environment and brought back communication between government ministries that had been cut off from the central government during the storm.”
When ordinary winter weather renders remote roads impassable, or when a sudden natural disaster occurs, technology can save lives and restore normalcy. Whether dispatching emergency crews or coordinating aid workers, Cisco has helped eased the pain caused by circumstances beyond human control. We’ll never be able to outsmart Mother Nature, but Cisco’s technology gives us the tools we need to be safer in our daily lives.