Disaster net met 9-11 comm need

Firefighters, policemen and other rescue workers who charged into the World Trade Center and Pentagon to help save lives were the visible heroes of the recovery efforts following the Sept. 11 attacks.

A group of telecommunications companies also played an important role behind the scenes when they repaired the infrastructure damaged in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

The National Communications System, a group of telecom vendors organized by the Defense Information Systems Agency, fixed severed cable lines, restored power, worked to open flooded phone lines and rebuilt much of the communications backbone.

The organization had to hurdle many obstacles, such as getting access to the attack sites and coordinating the efforts of more than 40 companies, said Brenton Greene, deputy manager of NCS, at a recent conference on homeland security in Washington.

'It was the most significant challenge that NCS had ever seen,' Greene said. 'It was absolutely devastating what happened.'

NCS was formed in 1963 to respond to telecommunications emergencies that threaten national security. It has members from 23 federal agencies as well as telecom companies.

NCS also has provided communications support after a devastating earthquake in Los Angeles and hurricanes Andrew, Hugo and Opal.

In the hours after the terrorist attacks, NCS set up a system to identify cell phone signals of survivors trapped in the rubble, Greene said. The system also handled the deluge of phone calls flooding the circuits.

'AT&T Corp. had over 100 million more calls than they had ever seen in a given day,' Greene said. 'Verizon Wireless experienced a 50 percent to 100 percent increase.'

NCS distributed 1,500 Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) calling cards that let emergency phone calls get past network congestion and outages on telephone networks.

No calls waiting

More than 10,000 calls were made in the crucial hours after the attacks with a success rate better than 95 percent, Greene said. GETS is a landline network that gives government and emergency workers priority to make phone calls.

Mother Nature and malicious computer coders complicated matters for NCS even further. One week after Sept. 11, Hurricane Gabriel hit the coast of Florida and the Nimda worm left its mark on government systems. NCS responded to both while still juggling Sept. 11 recovery efforts.

In the end, officials learned several lessons from the efforts, said Steve Ruggiero, a deputy regional administrator for the General Services Administration, an NCS member agency.
Ruggiero said NCS discovered that it needed an updated continuity of operations plan and a stronger capital planning focus on the infrastructure of federal buildings.

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