Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Portland Testing Node Network in Case of Loss of Phone Service

Forty-eight sites will be stood up post-disaster, where citizens can go for communication needs and supplies.

Part of Portland, Ore.’s Comprehensive Plan, a roadmap for the next 25 years, features hubs, 24 strategically located stations around the city that include essential supplies and services that can be accessed during a disaster. These hubs are within a 20-minute walk of most citizens, and each hub now includes two communication “nodes” where citizens can go after a catastrophe, such as an earthquake.

The 48 nodes – officially called Basic Earthquake Emergency Communication Nodes -- are designed to be set up just after a disaster that has rendered cell or landline phones inoperable. Within a canopy tent on each of the 48 locations, citizens would find volunteers, a UHF radio and other equipment, including flashlights, lanterns, batteries and medical supplies. With the UHF radios, the volunteers and citizens will be able to communicate with local fire stations, and fire personnel will then communicate with the emergency coordination center.

The term “nodes” comes from a mesh network, and that’s a good description of the system as the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) developed it. “That’s kind of what we were thinking, really a network of these sites that establishes a citywide communication system,” said Carmen Merlo, PBEM director.

Merlo said UHF radios were chosen instead of amateur radio because an FCC license is needed for amateur radio and amateur radio operators are already spread thin during disasters. “We’re using radios we think are going to be reliable and provide some level of redundancy if the telecommunication system is down.”

The PBEM would like citizens to stay in their homes unless directed otherwise, and the nodes should give residents confidence that they can find supplies and communications equipment within 20 minutes of their homes if necessary.

“So if I can’t pick up the phone and call 911 using a landline or a cellphone, I’ll certainly be able to report damage information or life and safety information using the UHF radios,” Merlo said. “And the idea is that maybe not right away but within three or four days, these same sites could be used for points of distribution for food, water and medical supplies but their primary purpose is for emergency information.”

Most of the sites are in parks or school fields and distributed “equitably” throughout the city. The canopy tent is the focal point but the actual sites are around three acres or more, Merlo said.

In April, two of the nodes were activated as a test and things went smoothly, Merlo said. A full-blown test of each of the 48 nodes is scheduled for May 22. Merlo said the biggest challenge thus far has been keeping the supplies out of view of thieves and vandals.

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.

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