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Ref: COLTS for communication resiliency

| 02.25.2008 | 13:57:273766 |
Sprint Nextel’s Emergency Response Team was formed after Sept. 11, 2001,
but it existed before 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, where team members proved their mettle.
Wireless carriers are often prepared for emergencies with their own emergency response teams, complete with cell sites on wheels (COWs) and cell sites on light trucks (COLTs).
But they don’t typically talk about employing a staff of 40 full-time communications specialists, most of them with military or public safety experience, to be on hand for public safety agencies when emergencies arise.
That’s what Sprint Nextel is doing with its Emergency Response Team (ERT), which provides critical communications and personnel to assist first responders with relief efforts. They showed up in New Orleans – escorted by armed security personnel – in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They helped out during the investigation of the Virginia Tech shootings. And they were deployed in the San Diego area to support those affected by wildfires last year.
Yet you won’t see the ERT members walking around with logos emblazoned on their jackets. The team members try to be discrete and look like the agencies with which they’re working. Naturally, team members carry high-level security clearances to be able to go into most any situation.
Lest you wonder what these full-time personnel are doing in between natural disasters or emergencies, Sprint ERT Director Matt Foosaner sets the record straight: “We’re not at the firehouse cooking chili,” he quips. In fact, only 15% to 20% of their work is disaster-related. The rest of the time is spent at pre-planned events, such as elections, international conferences and U.S. military operations.

Foosaner: In disasters,
you need a range of technologies.
Of course, Sprint’s ERT initiative didn’t get under way without the support of top executives. Several years ago, Leon Frazier, Sprint’s vice president/enterprise and public sector sales, asked Foosaner to head up the effort. It made sense because the formation of the ERT, created in 2002, dates back to Nextel Communications’ connections with government agencies.
Sure, other wireless carriers provide pieces of what Sprint’s ERT is doing, but Foosaner says he is unaware of anyone else providing the same scope of services for government agencies. “What we do is unique not only in the United States, but globally,” says Foosaner, who has consulted with other entities on an international basis.
That’s not to say other carriers aren’t prepared for disasters. “We have one of the most sophisticated, comprehensive and thorough programs in the industry, and we’ve had that for years,” says AT&T Mobility spokesman Mark Siegel. A large number of people who work at AT&T are focused on nothing else but disaster preparation “in all of its components,” he says. “We have a program that is second to none.”
Verizon Wireless says it has 1,000 employees on 40 Crisis Management Teams (CRTs) across the nation, leading the carrier’s response to crisis situations and coordinating directly with local governments and agencies. The CRTs provide command-and-control structure, escalate decision-making as needed and facilitate with resource allocation, says Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson. The carrier also provides “tens of thousands” of emergency handsets and other wireless devices to government responders for numerous emergency events.
The push-to-talk (PTT) functionality of Sprint Nextel has been an advantage for the carrier, particularly when Nextel Communications was a stand-alone company. It was the first to offer PTT group calling for public safety and first responders. Other carriers have tried to emulate PTT with varying degrees of success.
It’s not clear how iDEN users will be affected by the rollout this year of Sprint’s QChat service, its PTT solution for CDMA developed by Qualcomm, although Sprint representatives say its Direct Connect offering will only get better and iDEN users will be supported for some time to come. From their perspective, users should see no difference between Direct Connect on iDEN and Direct Connect via CDMA.
Still, when it comes to emergency responsiveness, “it’s not just about push-to-talk or cellular anymore,” Foosaner says. With the combination of iDEN, EV-DO, WiMAX, Sprint’s IP backbone and its own satellite earth stations, Sprint is uniquely qualified to offer a range of technologies, he says. The arsenal includes thousands of dedicated devices for use in emergencies and Sprint’s proprietary satellite cell on light trucks (SatCOLTs) to facilitate communications without relying on local power and phone infrastructure.
Mike Cahn III, a former assistant commander with the New Orleans Police Department SWAT team, was looking for a solution before Katrina struck and had talked with Foosaner about a month before the storm. When they lost radio power after Katrina, he gave Foosaner another call to see what they could do. Soon after, two COWs arrived as well as Direct Connect phones. Cahn gave Sprint technicians a list of police-related phone numbers, and they were quickly set up for priority calling so public safety could access communications ahead of others. Working with the Sprint ERT staff, most of whom have backgrounds in military or law enforcement, helped because they knew what was needed and they could get it done fast, according to Cahn.
In a 2006 report titled, “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned,” one of the recommendations called for the Department of Homeland Security to establish rapidly deployable, interoperable, commercial off-the-shelf equipment for federal, state and local authorities, and that’s what the ERT provides, Foosaner says.
Sometimes agencies are descending into an area and need to quickly convert a school or other location into a communications center. The ERT distributes kits that can be thrown on a plane or helicopter in short order, with pre-programmed devices and data cards.
Besides 40 full-time ERT members, Sprint has more than 1,000 employees who go through training and formally represent the carrier during disasters or emergencies. During such times, Sprint’s reaction is 3-fold, says spokeswoman Stephanie Greenwood. Besides the ERT, Sprint deploys back-up generators and personnel to make sure existing customers have service. It also dispenses volunteer employees who help in local communities, staffing stations with free phone calls or Internet access.
Public safety veterans familiar with Sprint’s ERT give high marks to all wireless carriers when it comes to responding to emergencies. This growing legacy of respect will no doubt play well as future disasters require action from both public safety and wireless carriers.