Former FEMA Administrator Advocates Using Mesh Networks for Disasters
Friday, August 28, 2020 | Comments
Former Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate encouraged the use of mesh networking to help empower volunteers during natural disasters, such as hurricanes and wildfires.

During a keynote at the International Wireless Communications Expo’s (IWCE) Virtual Event, Fugate noted that in disasters that knock out communications and roads and other accessways, volunteers can be a key factor in helping their neighbors.

However, effectively utilizing these volunteers and putting them in the spot that best uses their skills can be difficult during a disaster because of communications networks being knocked out, preventing traditional communications over cellphones.

Even when the network is down, those phones can offer communications through two other channels: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. At the same time, amateur radio users, agencies or commercial technicians can program routers to stop talking directly to the network and begin talking to each other, creating a mesh network.

Cellphones can then talk to the mesh network and use it for Wi-Fi. While those cellphones are unable to communicate with traditional cellular voice, Wi-Fi can provide access to Wi-Fi applications that allow voice communications.

The mesh networks can also offer financial relief to emergency agencies dealing with the expense of responding to a disaster, Fugate said. Whenever a government receives funds from FEMA, it must provide a match of 25%. However, not all of that match has to be money.

Instead, agencies can use volunteer hours toward that match and reduce financial stress while providing help to the community. In order, to apply volunteer hours to a disaster, an agency must have a record of those hours. Agencies working with commercial vendors or amateur radio operators to create the mesh network can credit a login set up for the network that can then be used to track hours.

“By building these types of networks, you can put people back into communication and put people to work where they’re needed,” Fugate said. He encouraged public-safety agencies to work with local amateur radio groups and/or commercial providers to create solutions that can build these mesh networks when the main network goes down.

“In a disaster, you don’t have the luxury of turning people away,” Fugate said. “What you have to do is figure out how to provide everyone communications.”

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