Disconnected: Understanding Communication System Failures During Disasters

By Scott Adams

In our technology-dependent world, communications systems are our lifelines. We count on them for situational awareness, emergency alerts and warnings, disaster response, vital information, social connectedness, work, education and healthcare.

Due to climate change, California has experienced an increasing number of large-scale disasters over the last two decades. During recent disasters, our communications systems, which are highly reliable and dependable in normal conditions, have failed. These failures compromise situational awareness, impact alert and warnings, impede vital communications between multiple stakeholders, and can lead to unnecessary loss of life and other social harms. Too little is understood about what causes these failures, who is responsible for them, and how to fix them. Leaders at all levels must work together to increase the resilience of our communications systems and promote redundant means of communications for use during inevitable future disasters.

Communication systems are defined as systems through which entities and individuals send and receive information. They include wireless, wireline and landline phone networks; and alert and warning systems.

Communication networks consist of tens of thousands of components, or facilities, that require power to operate. These networks fail during disasters when power is lost due to infrastructure damage; large segments of the power grid are de-energized during Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS); or due to the lack of adequate backup power at communications network facilities and end user premises. Congestion contributes to failures when portions of a network go down and diminish its capacity to handle increased call volumes during emergencies.

Alert and warning system failures commonly result from the use of alerting systems with limited capabilities; or a lack of training and authorization on the Federal Emergency Agency’s (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). Local warning systems and social media platforms require individuals to opt-in to receive alerts and cater to only the most information-hungry individuals. Their effectiveness is limited by low subscriber numbers. IPAWS is a more robust system that enables message transmission through multiple pathways to numerous redundant devices. IPAWS allows authorities to target all individuals in an area, using enhanced geo-fencing capabilities, without requiring that residents opt-in. A relatively small percentage of California entities are authorized on this system, and some who are, don’t know how to use it, or choose not to.

This post is an executive summary of Scott Adam's thesis. Read the full paper here.


Scott Adams

Scott Adams

Scott Adams is a 2020 Masters of Public Affairs graduate from UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. With over two decades of experience in California public policy, politics, and business; he has worked in the public and private sectors on issues including technology, telecommunications, clean energy, housing, infrastructure, and water.  He is currently the Deputy Director of Broadband and Digital Literacy at the California Department of Technology

Scott Adams was the Scholar in Residence for Rebuild NorthBay Foundation, 2020.