Wireless plays a role in civic emergencies

In early August, the airwaves were saturated with coverage of the tragic collapse of a Minneapolis bridge over the Mississippi River. But there was a story behind that story that got very little airtime, if any at all: The story of the role of the city’s municipal Wi-Fi network in the response to and aftermath of the disaster.

According to Craig Settles, Oakland-area public wireless evangelist, the city’s Wi-Fi system infrastructure was only about a quarter complete at the time of the collapse. The city’s network provider opened up the network to free traffic and sent crews to expand the network in areas around the bridge and install wireless cameras.

Settles issued a report back in May called When Crisis Hits the Fan — Muni Wireless to the Rescue, in which he outlines the role that a wireless municipal infrastructure can play in the event of catastrophe. A couple of sample scenarios:

• Police en route to an incident could access streaming media from the site, floor plans of buildings and lists of occupants.

• Emergency medical service personnel could relay video feeds to hospital ERs for guidance and to better prepare doctors for arrivals, and access medical records of victims they’re treating.

• Firefighters could access schematics, building inspection records, a database of techniques used in similar situations and more.

• Traffic control can gather information from video feeds and traffic sensors, and change lights remotely to move vehicles away from the scene.

Municipal wireless network design has to take into consideration the emergency response role of the network. Settles offers a four-point checklist of elements that should be included in a wireless crisis response plan: network considerations (speed, coverage area, redundancy, priority access, etc.), security preparations, access to the right data and end-user technologies.

In a catastrophe, communication is critical, and a properly designed municipal wireless infrastructure and strategy can make a world of difference.

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