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Verizon Prepped, Ready for 2018 Hurricane Season

The 2017 hurricane season was one of the most destructive and costliest in recorded history. Hurricane experts expect similar conditions this year. Verizon says it is prepared.

Telecommunications and internetworking ultimately rely on having access to reliable, high quality electrical energy. The value of communications services rises astronomically when disaster hits. Losing them at such critical times would severely compromise the ability of emergency, disaster response agencies and personnel to respond efficiently and effectively, raising threat levels that could result in greater loss of lives, property and physical assets. 

Having emergency, back-up power generation systems and fuel supplies at strategic, storm- and disaster-hardened cell sites in place in advance, mobile and portable generation sets and fuel supplies at secure equipment warehousing facilities ready for dispatch at a moment's notice figure prominently in Verizon's capacity to respond to hurricanes and other natural or human-caused disasters and keep communications networks and services up and running, Verizon Vice President of Engineering Andrea Caldini explained in an Energy Central interview. 

Verizon, hurricanes and extreme weather

Hurricane experts expect Atlantic sea surface temperatures to remain warmer than average across the area of the ocean basin where 85 percent of tropical storms develop during the 2018 hurricane season, which officially begins June 1 and lasts through end November.

It's no surprise, but reassuring nonetheless, that Verizon's cell sites and network infrastructure is designed and engineered to the most exacting specifications and highest possible standards. Those are exceeded strategically for sites in areas vulnerable to extreme weather and natural disasters of all kinds. Furthermore, its disaster and emergency response plans, assets and procedures are assessed, revised, reviewed and dry runs conducted year-round. 

Operating the largest wireless network in the US, Verizon takes extra precautions as hurricane season approaches, Caldini said in an interview. Prominent among them, Verizon: 

  • has backup generators, HVAC systems and fiber rings at cell sites and switching centers keep the network running and customers connected when commercial power is lost or water damage occurs;
  • pre-arranges fuel deliveries in case of a storm, with tankers poised and in position to quickly respond to hard-hit areas;
  • owns a fleet of portable emergency equipment that can be deployed quickly to keep customers connected or restore damaged connections as soon as possible;
  • has surveillance drones on standby to help assess and respond to damage from a storm.

“Everything to do with engineering our network is fundamentally based on reliability and being able to withstand those storms and keep operating. Our mobile switch centers are built to withstand Category 5 hurricanes. Our cell sites are sited above 100-year flood lines. If flood waters rise above those levels, we raise them, on stilts, for instance. We have emergency, back-up power generation and fueling operations to keep them fueled,” Caldini elaborated. 

Verizon network engineers also work out alternative, fiber optic signal transmission routes so that those in affected areas, including first responders and Verizon employees, can continue to communicate among themselves and with the outside world. Its emergency response centers are always on alert and routinely practice emergency response procedures so that everyone knows exactly what to do when a storm hits, Caldini continued.

Verizon and the 2017 hurricane season

“We had two big storms [in the lower 48 states] last year. Irma came up the Florida coast...Forecasters weren't sure exactly what path it would take, but the possibility that it would make its way all the to Virginia was being taken seriously.

"In addition to our emergency response team members, equipment and other physical assets, we had equipment staged in areas and hotel rooms reserved for employees coming in from other areas so that we would be ready whatever path Irma took,” Caldini said. 

All told, more than 560 Verizon employees participated or were on call during the telecoms carrier's Irma emergency response effort. Close to 20 mobile, emergency response assets were deployed and some 490,000 gallons of fuel for emergency generator sets was trucked in across the multi-state area.

Residents and visitors crowded around Verizon's cell tower and site on Marco Island off Florida's west coast once the worst was over. “We use our network for communications, internally and to coordinate with disaster response agencies and teams on the ground, but there were crowds around the site and people were making calls,” Caldini said.

Hurricane Harvey was much different in nature. It was primarily a wind event when it made landfall near Corpus Christi on Texas's Gulf Coast but then settled down over the Houston area for five days and dumped more than 60 inches of rain – making it a rain and flood event of historic proportions, Caldini explained. 

When all was said and done, 98 percent of Verizon's network facilities continued to operate during Harvey, Caldini told Energy Central.

Built to withstand Category 5 hurricanes and above 100-year flood lines (at a minimum), 97 percent of Verizon's cell sites located within 90 miles from coastal areas are equipped with emergency, back-up generators. These rely on diesel and other liquid or gas fossil fuels, such as propane, which is common in Florida, so Verizon maintains an extensive fuel supply network and supply chain. 

A menagerie of emergency responses assets

Verizon also maintains a fleet of emergency response equipment and vehicles at strategic centers nationwide, the exact locations of which the company does not disclose for security reasons. Besides unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones), that includes what have been dubbed “farm animals,” and Verizon has assembled and maintains a menagerie of these portable and mobile emergency response assets.

“We have COWS – portable cell sites  on wheels, GOATS – generators on trucks, and COLTS – portable cell solutions on light trucks, just to name a few,” Caldini explained. “We have assets already on-site if a storm is expected, and we can ship additional assets at a moment's notice from other parts of the country if and when they are needed. 

Verizon's Mobile Emergency Response Telecoms Network Menagerie 
COW: Cell on Wheels
CoLT: Cell on Light Truck
HoRSE: HVAV on Roadside Equipment
Goat: Generator on a Truck
Crow: Cellular Repeater on Wheels
RaT: Repeater on Trailer 

“Our credo is that we 'run to a crisis,'” Caldini continued. “We do a tremendous amount of preparation to ensure network reliability and safety, even in the event of catastrophic weather events or natural and other types of disasters – it's in our DNA.

"It really is incredible to see the ways our teams respond in emergency situations. We have a lot of ex-military among our employees and they do particularly well in these types of situations.” 

Looking ahead, Verizon is constantly on the look-out for ways to improve its emergency response assets and operations. The telecoms carrier is making use of fuel-free solar power generation and battery-based energy storage as part of its “green” energy initiatives, but they are not being used for the company's emergency response operations at present.  

“It's all about reliability – we want our networks to work when it's needed most,” Caldini concluded.

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