Muni WiFi helps Minneapolis cope with disaster

When disaster strikes, communication systems are often among the first casualties. This was the case in Minneapolis after the Aug. 1 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge. Cell phone service was jammed for hours after the collapse.

Craig Settles, president of Successful.com, a technology consulting firm, said the city's new municipal WiFi network was something of an unsung hero, helping the city coordinate its emergency response efforts after the collapse. Settles is the author of a 27-page report, 'When Crisis Hits the Fan ' Muni Wireless to the Rescue,' which details how municipal WiFi networks can help cities better cope with disaster. Settles this week released an addendum to the report that focused on the Minneapolis bridge crisis.

When the bridge collapsed, Minneapolis' municipal WiFi network was only partially finished and had never been tested for emergency response.

Minneapolis CIO Lynn Willenbring called the city's IT team together as soon as she heard about the collapse. Staff members prepared maps based on the city's geographic information system to distribute via the city's network to support personnel and the public.

Joe Caldwell, CEO of USI Wireless, the vendor for the city's wireless network, tried to call city offices to offer help, but he couldn't get through because cellular service was jammed. He decided to open the city's WiFi network for free for 24 hours to anyone who could use it. Network traffic jumped from 1,000 users to 6,000. People with WiFi-enabled phones could make voice calls, and anyone with a WiFi enabled laptop PC or other device could send instant messages, video, photos or e-mail.

USI Wireless had to add extra access points to accommodate the increased demand.

Having online access to the city's GIS was crucial, Willenbring said. Areas needed to be identified for the command center and staging areas for the media, families and for clearing debris from the bridge.

'Simply put, the ability to address all the GIS issues onsite, [in] real time and to readily share information throughout the command structure was invaluable,' Willenbring said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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