Radio communications examples, image by Brett Neilson

In reference to resilience building design strategy, backup communications consists of backup batteries, redundant communication methods, and or any other communication system design strategy that ensures some manner of communication can be relayed to emergency service personnel during extreme weather events and power failures.[1]

Issues Addressed

Organized emergency response efforts require consistent and clear communication between coordination entities and emergency response personnel working in the field, as well as citizens responding to extreme weather threats. Emergency management efforts are hindered, and life further endangered, when communication lines are down. Loss of available communication methods is an issue that has plagued recent disaster responses. Antennas, satellite dishes, and communication wires can be easily destroyed in high wind events if not thoroughly secured and prepared for such events. Such issues affected hospitals, police, and EMS responders in the US Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina.

Existing, established methods of communication cannot be relied upon during emergencies. For example, in the days after Hurricane Sandy it was documented that "25 percent of the nation's wireless companies' cell sites were not operational in 158 counties in 10 states from Virginia to Massachusetts."[2] This statistic demonstrates the scale of the issues that may arise, given our modern reliance on wireless communication. As a result of this venerable risk to communication availability when it is most needed, the FCC and several elected officials have pushed to mandate backup power for cell phone and communication towers, although this measure has yet to become a requirement.[3]


Critical facilities such as hospitals, fire houses, police stations, and emergency control centers possess a variety of means of communication to interact and coordinate emergency response. The public, in turn, may possess comparatively limited lines of communication to these critical facilities. Some of the means of communication in use during emergency situations may include:
  • telephone (cell or landline)
  • internet connections (such as email)
  • ham radios
  • wireless communications (such as walkie talkies)
  • satellite communications
  • media broadcasting or receiving
Each method of available communication has its own uses, limitations, vulnerabilities. For this reason, the most resilient solution to establishing backup communications is to establish redundancy. This redundancy should be built in to technical designs as well as emergency plans. The level of redundancy and availability of tools should be appropriate to the level of importance (or need) any particular building may play during emergency situations. This planning should occur on a case-by-case basis, and is essential to emergency planning.[4]

In the Building Resiliency Task Force document put forth by Urban Green Council in 2013, it is recommended that any building within defined flood areas "over 75 feet above the lowest level of Fire Department vehicle access, or having a total gross area exceeding 100,000 square feet" have at leas one wireless communication option, in addition to an additional landline or wireless communication connection to emergency services. The provision also suggests that critical facilities establish backup battery power to provide uninterrupted power to telecommunications and establish more than one point of entry for data cables into facilities.[5]


Image from MileMesh
A prime example of resilient backup communication is currently being built in Hoboken, New Jersey. A project founded by technology entrepreneurs and the Stevens Institute of Technology in the wake of Hurricane Sandy seeks to provide consistent wireless internet service to the city even during extreme weather and power failure events. The idea is to provide internet that is distributed by a series of node that form a "mesh" network of signals. The greater the number of nodes, the greater the service. Each node is powered by either grid power or a small solar panel and battery pack. Individual nodes may be knocked out, but the service will continue as long as users are within range of nodes that remain operational. Each node is bought and maintained by volunteers that agree to host the node, which start at $75 for a grid-powered node and $500 for solar-powered options. The concept of a mesh network is based on the idea that redundancy is the greatest protection against network failure. The MileMesh project is a highly replicable idea that could scaled to fit the needs of the communication network, or the entity implementing it.[6] [7]


  1. ^ Urban Green Council, comp. Building Resiliency Task Force. Rep. New York City: n.p., 2012.http://www.urbangreencouncil.org/servlet/servlet.FileDownload?file=015U0000001Eybd
  2. ^

    CNET "FCC on Sandy: Cell service likely to get worse before it gets better" http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-57542642-94/fcc-on-sandy-cell-service-likely-to-get-worse-before-it-gets-better/
  3. ^ Barbagallo, Paul. "Schumer Calls for FCC to Require Backup Power for Cell Locations." Bloomberg Law. Web. 09 Nov. 2013. http://about.bloomberglaw.com/law-reports/schumer-calls-for-fcc-to-require-backup-power-for-cell-locations/
  4. ^

    FEMA "Design Guide for Improving Critical Facility Safety from Flooding and High Winds: Providing Protection to People and Buildings" http://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/8811
  5. ^

    Urban Green Council, comp. Building Resiliency Task Force. Rep. New York City: n.p., 2012.http://www.urbangreencouncil.org/servlet/servlet.FileDownload?file=015U0000001Eybd
  6. ^

    MileMesh. "MileMesh - Hoboken's WiFi Network." MileMesh - Hoboken's WiFi Network. Web. 09 Nov. 2013. http://milemesh.com/
  7. ^ Brenzel, Kathryn. "NJ.com." The Jersey Journal. 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 09 Nov. 2013. http://www.nj.com/hudson/index.ssf/2013/10/after_sandy_milemesh_aims_to_keep_hoboken_online_during_crisis.html