Controlling the Chaos When Disaster Strikes

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG)  |  By Jacqueline Fox
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Paul Lynch oversees the Rocklin-based Switch Center for Verizon’s Emergency Response Team Unit, which provides onsite backup power and cellular communications networking centers during disasters and emergency situations for Northern California first responders.

Verizon's Emergency Response Center Has Connectivity Covered

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - Likely, as you watched recent television or streaming images of emergency rescue operations following the devastating fires and subsequent mudslides in Southern California, for example, you gave little thought to how first-responders on the ground, in the air and elsewhere were keeping the lines of communication flowing as they scrambled into gear to save lives and prepare for recovery operations.

Behind the scenes, mobile carriers such as Verizon Wireless were doing some of the most critical work necessary in these types of situations: addressing cellular network failures, which are common in natural disasters.  Depending on the situation, this can include anything from establishing mobile satellite systems to sending drones into those places humans can’t go, including collapsed buildings, tunnels and unstable structures. 

Recently, officials overseeing Verizon’s Rocklin-based emergency services switch facility held a “Public Safety Day” event, offering some of its clients a tour of their Rocklin switch facility, once of several nationwide keeping an eye on their perspective, regional networking systems, as well as TV news coverage of any and all disasters or emergencies where first-responders are unable to get on the network.

Built in 2003, the facility’s sister location is based in Sunnyvale.  Roughly 30 people work at the Rocklin facility; however, there are more than 100 others centers set up across the country employing more than 46 teams comprised of roughly 160,000 people.

“We like to think of ourselves as ‘pre-responders,’” said Paul Lynch, who manages Verizon’s two Northern California facilities.  “We monitor situations going on all over the country and we have crews on the ground from the get-go to provide onsite support for first responders to make sure they are connected and talking to one another.”

The invite-only tours are offered monthly as a way to show emergency response teams from Cal Fire, police and sheriff’s departments, the Department of Fish Wildlife and others exactly how well-prepared and equipped the company is at providing them with on-demand connectivity during a natural or man-made disaster.

The team will mobilize portable networking call centers, mobile satellite stations and deployment of any one of the company’s veritable barnyard of “cool tools,” such as cells on wheels (COWs), cells on light trucks (COLTS), HVACs on roadside equipment (HORSEs), and generators on a trailer (GOATs).

The Rocklin switch facility tour included a walk through the engineer’s command center or NOC (Network Operations Center), where 24-hour “surveillance” of its networking operations run across wall-to-wall monitors, scrutinized around the clock by a team of six engineers, three on the day shift, three on at night. 

“We don’t highlight any of this,” said Lynch.  “We don’t grandstand what’s behind our network.  But it is important for our customers working in the emergency fields to have confidence in who they partner with and to see up close exactly what we can do and how quickly we can do it.”

Verizon’s Crisis Response Teams, in Rocklin and nationwide, conduct regularly scheduled drills and emergency tests to ensure that they are ready to roll when they are needed, including shutting down the battery rooms and switching over to generators. 

“We don’t want to be the last to know that we’ve got failure,” said Lynch.

Tim Kuka, who oversees the Rocklin facility’s Network Equipment Center (NET) located right next door to the switch facility, gave a tour of the state of the art building.  The tour offered visitors a sneak-peak at Verizon’s local 4-G networking nerve center, a mind-blowingly pristine space known as the Data Hall or “cloud room.”  The building was constructed in 2014 and contains an impressively intricate layout of data backup units and an equally mind-numbing amount of cable.

“If you would take all the conduit in this building alone and stretch it out, it would go all the way to San Francisco,” said Kuka.

First-responders to man-made emergencies also often require backup power and or connectivity support.  Case in point: Verizon’s switch teams worked closely with FBI officials during the mass shootings that occurred at a San Bernardino-based regional center in December of 2015, quickly mobilizing command centers, establishing private networking and satellite communications lines and serving to provide backup power and other services to all agencies aiding victims and overseeing the recovery efforts.

The switch facility and NEC tours culminated with a close-up demonstration of some of those cool tools, including Rocklin’s own RAD (Robotic Assistance Device), a four-wheel robot that looks like a scooter with a camera tower perched on its front end.

“She can go into dull, dark, dirty and dangerous places,” said Jim Larson a vendor with Robotic Assistance Devices, which partners with Verizon to provide the RAD.  “She can be manually operated or put on automatic to handle perimeter security during a disaster or emergency, taking pictures the whole time while emergency personnel are doing their jobs.”

Verizon’s 46 emergency networking teams across the country also are prepared and ready to help set up networking stations with water, food and other supplies, as well as connectivity support relief efforts, specifically by the Red Cross.  Its response teams also will provide first responders and others with handsets, dedicated mobile hotspot devices and private networks. 

“Everything we provide is free, except in cases where we have to set up satellites,” said Lynch.