Nº 2 2013 > Relief, resilience, recovery

Learning from disaster

These three photos show the evolution of Sendai Airport’s control tower in Natori, Japan, three years following the earthquake and tsunami that hit thWorkshop participants on a technical tour of Tohoku region
These three photos show the evolution of Sendai Airport’s control tower in Natori, Japan, three years following the earthquake and tsunami that hit the region in March 2011
Workshop participants on a technical tour of Tohoku region

Beyond heroic efforts to help people survive disaster lies a strong resolve to learn from the experience and do better next time. This applies to medical teams, rescue workers and firefighters, and many others, including of course — in our hyperconnected world — the telecommunication sector. Our lives increasingly rely on being connected. But what happens when networks are overloaded or connections are broken?

Highlights from fourth meeting of Focus Group on Disaster Relief Systems, Network Resilience and Recovery

An ITU workshop on disaster relief systems, network resilience and recovery, held in Tokyo from 5 to 8 February 2013, looked in particular at the lessons learned from the experience of the earthquake and tsunami that struck east Japan on 11 March 2011.

Hosted by Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, and the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, the workshop constituted the fourth meeting of the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU–T) Focus Group on Disaster Relief Systems, Network Resilience and Recovery. It was attended by 83 participants from 7 countries and included a one-day technical tour of Tohoku, visiting areas that had been hit by the disaster, and the sites of research and development projects.

The Focus Group on Disaster Relief Systems, Network Resilience and Recovery, was established in January 2012 with the mandate to collect and document information and concepts, from a telecommunication perspective, in order to identify requirements, as well as additional standards that may need to be developed, for disaster relief systems and applications, network resilience and recovery. It reports to the Telecommunication Standardization Advisory Group (TSAG).

The focus group coordinates ITU–T’s current work in the disaster relief field, and is expanding this work into two important new areas. First, it is working on disaster relief for individuals, the idea being to be able to notify relatives, friends or employers of a victim’s situation. The second area of work is concerned with providing timely guidance for disaster victims, for example to show them routes to evacuation shelters or how to get them safely back home.

Special session on ICT and disaster

During the workshop’s special session on ICT and disaster, participants were able to pick up tips from three experts in the field. The first presentation was made by Gregory Bain of the United States, and Piers O’Hanlon, a Fresnel Research Fellow at the Oxford University in the United Kingdom, on behalf of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Mr O’Hanlon introduced the IETF’s activities on technical specifications in the area of ICT for emergency and disaster communications. These take the form of Request for Comments (RFC). Mr O’Hanlon emphasized the importance of the timely receipt of alerts or messages during an emergency, and demonstrated how to achieve the latency control of priority communications using explicit congestion notification.

Workshop participants recognized the effectiveness of explicit congestion notification as a way of avoiding network congestion in the case of disaster. They noted that the method works not only for voice communication but also for video communication over Internet Protocol (IP).

The focus group agreed to include information on explicit congestion notification in the ITU–T Handbook on Public Telecommunications Systems in Disaster Situations, which is currently being drafted.

In the second presentation, Professor Masanao Shinohara of the Earthquake Research Institute of The University of Tokyo, described a system that estimates seismic and tsunami activity on the basis of seafloor observation by using IP technology and the optical fibre network off Sanriku. Professor Shinohara also discussed the importance of standardization in the area of disaster warning and response.

The third presentation, by Kozue Ishida of the Corporate Marketing Department at NTT DOCOMO, introduced “Area Mail”, a disaster relief and early warning system designed by NTT DOCOMO that uses cell broadcasting technology. Cell broadcast enables mobile carriers to simultaneously send early warning alarms or warning messages to all the mobile phone users in a designated area. According to Ms Ishida, the Area Mail service ensures that there is no delay in transmitting the alerts.

After the east Japan earthquake and tsunami, NTT DOCOMO launched a tsunami warning service in addition to its existing earthquake warning service. Currently, the warning alarm and message data need to be entered separately for each mobile carrier system. But a common input system is being developed for all mobile carriers in Japan.

Participants recognized that the Area Mail service could contribute to achieving the objectives of the focus group, and agreed to continue discussing it with a view to including the concept in the deliverables of the group.

Written contributions

In addition to the special session, the workshop offered participants the opportunity to discuss specific aspects of disaster relief systems, network resilience and recovery. Communication networks provide a lifeline in disaster situations, and — if they are damaged — their quick recovery is a priority.

During the workshop, various approaches to network recovery were examined on the basis of numerous written contributions submitted by participants. These included papers from telecommunication carriers, manufacturers, universities, research institutes and other organizations concerned with disaster relief and network recovery.

A variety of research and development projects aiming at strengthening and protecting ICT networks against disaster damage have been conducted since the east Japan earthquake and tsunami. Many of these activities — by Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs as well as other concerned organizations and companies — were the subject of contributions to the workshop. Papers were received, in particular, from the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT), Tohoku University, Sky Perfect JSA, NEC, NTT DOCOMO and KDDI Laboratory.

Learning from experience

The ICT-related effects of the east Japan earthquake and tsunami prompted a range of research and development projects, as a way of learning from the experience in order to be better prepared in any future disaster.

The results of the studies indicate that there is a widespread shortfall of network resources. The studies also pinpoint some of the disadvantages of the existing transportable network equipment and facilities. In particular, it takes too long to install transportable switching equipment, and it is not easy for people without expertise to install and use satellite communication terminals.

The proposed fixes include various different technologies, such as network congestion mitigation at the disaster site and automatic functional recovery of damaged telecommunication systems in the event of disaster. The focus group agreed to continue discussing these potential improvements in order to identify the requirements, as a first step towards standardization.

Emergency systems for people with disabilities

Taishi Tsukamoto of NTT DATA Corporation presented the corporation’s work on emergency communication systems for people with disabilities. The focus group agreed to send a liaison statement to ITU’s Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU–D), Radiocommunication Sector (­ITU–R), and ITU–T, in particular to ITU–T Study Group 16 and to the ITU–T Joint Coordination Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors (JCA-AHF), with a view to gathering and sharing information on related activities within ITU and in its Member States.

Technical visit to Tohoku region

On 8 February 2013, workshop participants went on a one-day technical tour of the Tohoku region, which included Sendai City, in order to visit the disaster stricken areas, and the research and development project sites.

Tour participants visited NTT’s local exchange offices, which had been damaged by the tsunami, and they learned about the company’s activities in regard to network recovery.

Participants went on a guided tour of the Resilient ICT Research Centre, established to conduct research and development on network resiliency in the case of disaster. They also visited the sites of disaster-related research and development projects.

These projects aim at the quick recovery of communication functions and smooth installation of a satellite communication line after a disaster. The project titles give a flavour of the type of research and development being undertaken, for example a “reconfigurable communication resource unit for disaster recovery” and “very small aperture terminals (VSAT) can be installed by easy operation during disasters”. Tour participants were able to see a functioning test model of an easy-to-install VSAT.

Being prepared

Disasters can occur anywhere in the world. Whether the disasters are earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis or mudslides, a quick response is always required. It is important to react rapidly, not only to improve the rescue success rate but also to get started with reconstruction.

A rapid response largely depends on how far the response was prepared in advance. Communication, in particular, plays an essential role in mitigating the impact of disaster.

In the area of disaster relief, the focus group expects to see increased standardization of ICT as a way of building a safer society. At its fourth meeting, the focus group gathered together a number of experiences and lessons learned from the east Japan earthquake and tsunami. This information will be of value to all countries that suffer from disasters. It can also be used to raise awareness of the importance of ICT standardization in areas where ICT and disasters intersect.

The topic of disaster relief, and network resilience and recovery, will be further discussed by the Focus Group on Disaster Relief Systems, Network Resilience and Recovery, at its fifth meeting, which is planned to take place in Thailand in May 2013.


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