Communications For Disaster Recovery


One of the most crucial aspects of any disaster recovery plan has to be communications. Without a reliable communications strategy in place all of the disaster recovery planning and efforts are seriously hampered. Any solder can tell you without reliable communications you can lose the battle.

To ensure that you have adequate and reliable communications you should consider various options and have at least two forms available.

First most companies use what is known as a PRI which is their primary form of communicating. This is a business grade telephone line and can carry several phone calls simultaneously. The PRI is a digital circuit and

The CO handles the land line communications for a town
The CO handles the land line communications for a town

requires the proper equipment to use it which is very common place in many businesses. In larger companies they would have several PRI’s in place just to handle the call volume. In some aspects that alone can be part of a DR plan. One of the big down falls of a PRI is that regardless of who your provider is the “last mile” generally is your local phone company. This connection will originate at a location in or near your town known as the central office or “CO”. Even if you have multiple PRI’s chances are that they will all originate from the same CO and most likely run along the same telephone poles.

What if the PRI goes down altogether or the CO is rendered inoperable, now what? A lot of place still use fax machines and most likely those are on what is known as POTs lines. Unlike the PRI the POTs line is old fashioned analog. A lot of fax machines also have handsets so in an emergency you can use that for communication. But these too can originate from the same CO and would use the same poles.

Hence there is a weak link right there.

One company I know of had their PRI fail when someone in the CO accidentally disconnected the service. They where down for three days while the phone company worked on the problem but they still had the fax machines to call out on. But the executives did not like that idea of talking on a fax machine so they relied on the next option.

Everywhere we go we see people on cell phones. These can and should be a part of your DRP. Although they are pretty reliable these too have drawbacks.

A cell phone can be an alternative form of communications
A cell phone can be an alternative form of communications

Not considering usage limits from one plan to another, cell phones do have a limited range and the area you are in might have sketchy to no coverage. As an example in my own town in most of it I get great cell coverage but in another section the coverage is poor at best.

Should a cell tower go down as what happened in many areas of Long Island and in New Jersey due to a lack of power from hurricane Sandy in 2012, the cell phones became useless. The were expensive paperweights. That storm not only took out cell coverage but many land-line phones where affected as well when trees fell on wires.

Many times the cell towers can become overloaded with calls and again the cell phone is becomes useless. This happened when the New York Metro area and surrounding areas were hit with an earth tremor in 2011.

Another form of communication you can add to your DRP are satellite phones. These are still costly but not too far out of reach and can make an ideal addition. Unlike PRI’s, fax lines and cell phones satellite phones

A satellite phone does not require cell towers
A satellite phone does not require cell towers

do not rely on traditional systems at least on one end of the communications side. A very big plus for these for the most part is that the range is almost unlimited with the one exception.

Aside from the cost being one of the drawbacks with satellite phones is if a satellite is not in optimum position you might not get reliable communications for a short period of time. This is slowly being rectified as more satellites are put into orbit. But when the satellite is in position, then the range is unlimited.

When you call out on a satellite phone, the signal is picked up by an orbiting satellite, then bounced to a receiving station then it goes over traditional land lines to the destination. Here lies the second issue, what if the destination so happens to be in the same area where the disaster is located and has been affected by it as well?

Some people may consider using is the good old CB Radio. These have very limited range, are subject to outside interference, and generally are not monitored by the authorities. To use a CB no license is required. The FCC eliminated that years ago which gave birth to a problem and that is everyone and their neighbors can be on the air jamming up the airwaves with useless chatter. And depending on where you are located, truckers use the CB as a way of communicating with each other.

Another form of DR communications you might want to look into is actually very old and predates the internet, cell and satellite phones. That is amateur or HAM radio.

First thing that probably pops into you head when you hear HAM radio is a room filled with complex radios, oscilloscopes, someone using a Morse code key and head phones. In some extreme aspects this is not far from the truth but that really holds true for someone who is very advanced into the hobby. But let the truth be known you can obtain a HAM radio

HAM radio can be daunting
HAM radio can be daunting

that is a walkie talkie and get great coverage.

HAM radio does require that you obtain a license from the Federal Communications Commission “FCC” and that can deter someone from going forward. One of the things that can scare people off is having to know Morse Code. A few short years ago you were required to know Morse at a set speed. That is no longer a requirement in most levels of license.

What you do need to know is some radio and electronic theory which is not too hard to master. The American Radio Relay League or “ARRL”

HAM radios can be as simple as a walkie-talkie
HAM radios can be as simple as a walkie-talkie

holds classes for the public so you should look into them as a resource. I took an on-line self-assessment test in how I would fair in taking the test and I got an 80 without picking up a book. In all fairness being involved in computers on the technical level did give me a slight advantage.

At least with a HAM radio available you have the ability to reach out to another HAM radio for assistance. Some hospitals and police departments are using HAM radio as back up communications but check in your area to see if they do have HAM radio.

One thing that needs to be pointed out that whatever you say on any radio can be listened to by other people so discretion in what you say is strongly advised. Even cell phone calls can be intercepted by someone using a programmable radio scanner.

As long as we are on the subject of two way radios, one more can be considered but has some drawbacks and that is shortwave radio. Instead of being able to communicate a few miles, you can reach people around the world. Like HAM radio, you are required to have a license and the station needs a license. Shortwave radio sets are expensive as well and have certain installation requirements.

Social media for DR communications?
Social media for DR communications?

Another thing that you might have thought of is right under your nose, but it does require extreme caution in how you use it and that is social media. Social media can be used for internal communications with your staff provided you take precautions to make sure that only they can see it. I will address that in my next article.

Plus if you lose your internet connectivity for one reason or another using social media becomes a mute cause.

And naturally this all of this depends on the availability of having electricity. During Sandy a lot of areas were without power for weeks into months. So whatever your DR communications plans are, you need to have some form of backup power either through batteries or generator. In a later article, I am going to address that exact issue so check back regularly.

These are just some of the options that you can use in a disaster for communications and should be added to your arsenal of tools.