Oklahoma: Mobile Communication in the Wake of a Tornado


The nation’s attention has been fixed on Oklahoma after a tornado, one of the most damaging in American history, devastated the city of Moore on Monday. The crisis hit especially close to home for us at Lua for two reasons. First, Oklahoma was where we got our start, working as software consultants on the set of Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder (Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem), where we tested and refined ideas that would ultimately lead to the Lua of today. Second, mobile communication during crises has always been an area that we have been developing our Lua platform for. Our CTO Ariel once worked on disaster recovery-related projects in Puerto Rico and our founder got much of his inspiration for Lua watching attempts at using software to aid the Katrina relief programs.

Crises such as tornadoes or the bombing in Boston create unique situations in mobile communication: a sudden, urgent need for large-scale communication (for disseminating instructions and status updates to people, coordinating aid etc.) is often coupled with a shortage or destruction of the existing infrastructure (cell towers, devices, local operation centers etc.) required. Among the many insights from the Boston bombing were lessons in communicating with employees, as highlighted by the Harvard Business Review. Similarly, several themes in mobile communication come to light as we watch the recovery efforts in Oklahoma closely.

An Elevated Need for Communication

Much attention has been paid to pre-disaster communication, specifically the 16-minute advanced tornado warning issued by the National Weather Service. And rightly so: letting people know when and how severe a natural disaster would be would probably go the furthest in limiting the number of lives lost. The problem with focusing solely on pre-disaster notifications is that tornados are sudden phenomena, and we do not know enough to predict them accurately and early enough. In fact, the national average tornado lead time is 13 minutes. Back in the 1980s, it was a mere 5 minutes.

This brings us to post-disaster communication, which helps contain the damage already done. There are several aspects to this:

  1. 1. Communication from the authorities: Status updates that let people know when it is safe to emerge from shelter

  2. 2. Communication amongst first responders: Mobilization and coordination

  3. 3. Communication amongst residents: Letting people know you’re okay, and where to find you

  4. 4. Communication amongst local government employees: Coordinating long-term recovery efforts post-disaster at state level

The local victims and first responders share a common trait: they are all highly dispersed, and may be constantly on the move after the tornado. Therefore, all the above exercises in communication need to be mobile to be most effective.

The Difficulties in Communicating: Voice vs. Data

On Tuesday, 21 May (a day after the tornado hit), FEMA sent out a blast on Facebook and Twitter: “After a disaster, phone lines may be congested. Check in with friends/family by texting or updating your social networks.” That same day, FEMA director Craig Furgate was on TV repeating the plea.

These are interesting instructions that most people would not predict: do not call your family? And yet the extent that FEMA chose to emphasize this demonstrated its real value to the recovery effort. This only served to throw the light on how crucial communication really is in such difficult times, as well as the real scarcity of resources for this purpose.

Another insight here stems from the specific highlighting of texting and social networks as alternatives to calls. Texting only came to be in the 1990s: before then, calling friends and family in the aftermath of a disaster would have been the best and only way of quickly letting them know one was safe. Today, we are no longer shackled to a single method of communication: instead, we have alternatives that can help alleviate the strain of phone calls on the networks. We have already seen how data has permeated through and enhanced communication in various everyday, non-crisis situations e.g. file sharing during remote meetings, and as a channel to stay in touch with friends. What is surprising is how relevant it also is during times of natural disaster.

The Difficulties in Communicating: FEMA’s Role

The government's response to the tornado was swift: the President declared a major disaster on the same day of the tornado, and the FEMA director was in Oklahoma the next day. By Wednesday night, 2 days after the tornado, more than 400 federal personnel had been deployed on the ground. FEMA brought with them everything you'd expect for disaster recovery such as personnel for search and rescue missions and first-aid resources. In the area of communication support, FEMA too plays a role, by providing Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) in the form of Mobile Communications Office Vehicles (MCOVs).

These trailer-style mobile operations centers are completely equipped with communications equipment for voice, video communications beyond the traditional push-to-talk radio.

MERS telecommunications transmission capabilities:

  • High Bandwidth Ku-band satellite connectivity provides voice video and is in support of the Federal incident data requirement.

  • International Maritime Satellite (INMARSAT) or satellite terminal equipment provides immediate single voice channel and data capabilities and extend the FEMA open networks.

  • Handheld mobile satellite services.

  • Line of Sight Microwave transmission to connect to and or extend the FEMA commercial networks.

  • High Frequency (HF) to communicate with Federal, State, and local emergency centers for resident continuity communications.

  • Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) for local radio communications.

Source: FEMA website

While it is a great thing that FEMA has such resources at hand to deploy to areas in need, several challenges remain unresolved by current resources. For one, the large size of the MCOVs make them hard to maneuver in areas with significant devastation. The cost of these systems is also an issue for local jurisdictions, a problem exacerbated by the nation’s continuing economic challenges.

How Far We Have Come

On a positive note, we have actually come a long way in the area of disaster recovery. The tornado hit Oklahoma on Monday, 20 May. By Wednesday, 22 May, all the missing were accounted for. The fact that recovery efforts have been able to account for every missing person in a town with a population of 50,000 within 2 days is astounding. The speed and efficiency of the response to the tornado could be attributed to a myriad of factors: Oklahoma’s preparedness for tornados, the efforts of the first responders, the full investment of resources from the government, but just as important was the availability of methods of communications to mobilize and coordinate it all.

It is heartening to see such progress, which only strengthens our commitment to technology and building products that solve problems and improve lives. Perhaps a time will come when the suddenness and destructiveness of natural disasters such as tornados are completely neutralized, and our hope is that improved mobile communication would play a large part in that movement.