Long before the September 11 attack on New York City's World Trade Center, AT&T officials realized that communication services are vital after a natural disaster or terrorist attack.
In 1990, the company created its disaster response team, charged with recovering communication networks following any disaster. Today, the team is stronger than ever, with equipment stored in four warehouses in undisclosed locations around the country. Team members participate in several recovery exercises annually to keep up on their skills.
"Our primary objective is to supplement AT&T's network reliability with network disaster recovery under any condition and at any time," says Jeff Houk, group manager of AT&T Network Disaster Recovery Operations. "Our Global Network Operations Center (GNOC) monitors our network, and, if there is any failure or risk against the network, like a hurricane, they alert me, I alert my team, and we respond according to the situation. In the case of a hurricane, we follow its path and make decisions about where it may fall and how severe it may be, then look at our network vulnerabilities in that area and prepare for what equipment would be used. We might even predeploy if necessary and put the equipment and team in the area at a safe distance away."
Once activated, the team can usually be on the road in anywhere from two to 10 hours, says Houk. A lot depends on how much equipment will be needed and how close the volunteers are to their work location warehouses. The incident command team is also predeployed to the incident site to prepare for the trailers' arrival and to begin setting up a forward command post so work can begin when the team arrives.
"Our recovery time objectives are to be at the disaster location within 48 hours and to effect a full recovery within 168 hours," Houk says. "For the World Trade Center, we were actually there in under 20 hours and able to effect a recovery in less than 48 hours."
The team, which is on call 24/7, includes specially trained managers, engineers and technicians who have trained in the physical recovery of an AT&T central office. All team members are volunteers who are trained in CPR and AED use. When deployed, a crew travels with the trailers that carry equipment, which includes: AC power generators and DC power supplies, heating and air conditioning; lumber and tools for construction needs; food, water, cooking supplies and tents for team members; a card reader security system; a mobile, self-contained command center; a mobile satellite communications system; and first aid equipment.
Power and communications are always the biggest factors in responding to any disaster, says Houk, from the citizens who need help to the emergency responders like hospitals, ambulances, police and fire.
"All of those people rely heavily on communications, so AT&T is totally committed to network reliability," he says. "Our interface at the local level depends on the severity and level of the disaster. We have liaisons to the National Communications System (NCS) and the National Coordinating Center, and we make our initial contact before we even arrive at a disaster to let the locals know we're coming, what we intend to do and how it might affect them. That also gives us permission to get into the area and our forward incident command system can operate with them more directly once they're on site."