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What Paul Revere Can Teach Us About Emergency Communications Systems

August 6, 2013 No Comments


What if Paul Revere, on the night of his historic ride, had been felled by a spy’s bullet before he had a chance to sound the alarm?

What if his horse had tripped and broken its leg somewhere along the way? What if his boat had sprung a leak as he rowed across the river to get in place to receive the signal? What if he had choked on a piece of meat during dinner that night?

The casual student of American history might tell you that the Colonial militias would have been crushed, having failed to receive word of the British invasion.

Those who have delved deeper into the matter, however, would probably respond that it actually might not have made much of a difference had Revere been somehow put out of commission. It is possible that “the fate of the nation” was in the balance that night, as Longfellow’s famous poem asserts; but it isn’t true that it was riding on the hooves of Revere’s steed alone.

Knowing his method of communication (light signal + horse) to be inherently uncertain, Revere built plenty of room for error into his plans. His famous ride actually featured several other horsemen. Nor was he alone when he received the signal from the Old North Church. Word of the invasion spread in a pattern resembling that of what today we might recognize as a decentralized network, with towns alerting neighboring hamlets in an omnidirectional chain reaction. Had any one link in the system failed, the end result would likely have been about the same.

Unfortunately, our modern society seems to have learned the lesson of the more commonly accepted version of the Revere story all too well, if our own emergency communications systems are any indication. We have been lulled by the terrific consistency of our cellular and wireless networks into thinking that those systems will always be available to us in a crisis. As a result, we now depend to an alarming degree on technological infrastructure capable of being crippled by a single stroke.

Witness Hurricane Sandy, which knocked out both power grids and cellular networks, leaving New Yorkers scrambling to find landlines and payphones to contact emergency services and loved ones. Or the Boston marathon bombing, which clogged cell systems so badly that many initially theorized the city had shut down the networks intentionally (it hadn’t). In both crises, people found themselves cut off from key means of communication precisely at the time when they needed them most.

Not everyone has been insensible to the instability of our networks. Large enterprises, which of course have a great financial interest riding on the availability of those networks, generally construct systems that can function on any number of channels if the main line falters. Municipalities, too, are increasingly developing alternative communications infrastructure, via “wireless mesh” networks and mobile access points designed to provide emergency teams full access to information technologies.

Our cities, however, still lack broad communication systems available to the general public in times of emergency.

The good news is that creative solutions aren’t lacking. The Department of Defense has commissioned dozens of studies over the past two decades in an effort to develop something called a mobile ad-hoc network, essentially a connected system of small-scale devices that can operate on its own when the larger grid is down.

In a recent article published in the MIT Technology Review, Julius Genachowski, the outgoing chairman of the FCC, made the intriguing suggestion that the city of Boston pioneer such a network using tools already at hand. Along with co-author Jonathan Zittrain, Genachowski sketched a system that would have people and businesses open their private wireless hubs to the public, and would link cell phones together to create walkie-talkie-style relay points without reference to the broader network.

Superficially at least, Genachowski and Zittrain’s proposal resembles the much earlier Bostonian communication system pioneered by Revere and co. Like that earlier network, theirs would rely on a number of connected “nodes” in lieu of a centralized hub, creating a stable if spotty ground system.

But I think Revere and his contemporaries, if we could consult them today, would encourage us to focus our energy on developing institutional backup systems, as well. Their network, after all, relied heavily upon the power centers of the day to spread the word. The doors that Revere and other riders knocked on weren’t chosen at random, but were instead selected by a careful process designed to spread the message to the people and organizations best positioned to amplify it.

That’s not to say that creative small-scale solutions like the one Genachowski and Zittrain advocate don’t have a place in an emergency communications network – they certainly do. But to my mind, their proposal is equally interesting as a model for an institutional effort to create large-scale dispersed, broad-based backup networks. Absent such an effort, we will remain at risk of being left in the dark when the next crisis strikes.


Rick Stevenson is CEO of Opengear, a company that builds remote infrastructure management solutions for enterprises.


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