Verizon simulates disaster near operations center

The company's mobile command center restores communications to affected building

It was only a drill, but Verizon Communications' emergency response team brought in its serious equipment for a hazardous materials test in Cockeysville, Maryland, Monday and Tuesday.

In the scenario, a truck carrying chlorine collided with a light-rail train within a few hundred yards of Verizon's Cockeysville operations center, which provides nationwide customer support for the company's enterprise and federal government customers, dispatches field technicians to Verizon customers in the Baltimore area, and houses support staff for Verizon.

In a real disaster, all 791 employees of the Verizon facility would have to evacuate their building, with the Verizon Major Emergency Response Incident Team's (MERIT's) mobile command center, a 51-foot truck trailer, restoring communications at the site. The three-room command center includes 11 workstations, a conference room and a communications center.

The command center, primarily used by Verizon to restore its communications services during a disaster, features a 40-kilowatt generator, four UHF radios, two VHF radios, three DirecTV receivers, a weather station, an amateur radio, a video recorder, two video streaming devices, four computer servers, four satellite modems, two emergency communications scanners and three network switches.

That's just a partial list of the trailer's features. The trailer is a "completely autonomous unit," said David Hyde, disaster recovery team lead for Verizon.

When Verizon arrives at a disaster site, it wants to avoid taxing the local infrastructure, said Dick Price, chief business continuity officer at Verizon. Thus, the trailer has a generator and several communications systems, he said.

While the mission of the command center trailer is primarily to restore Verizon networks, it also can provide Internet and radio communications for local emergency response agencies, Price said. The trailer also has electrical outlets on its exterior so emergency response workers and other people can recharge their laptops and other equipment, and Verizon is working on a way for the trailer to become a cellular transmission site, he added.

"We want to give back to the community as much as we can while we're out there fixing our network," Price said.

In addition to the mobile command center, Verizon has three other trailers outfitted with communications equipment specifically focused on providing Internet and voice service to people affected by disasters. Verizon, which has operated a disaster team since 1993, deployed one of those trailers to Baghdad in 2003, just after the start of the Iraq war, providing soldiers a link to their families in the U.S.

Outside of the mobile command center Tuesday morning, MERIT members were putting on hazmat suits. The mission of the first hazmat team was to enter the Verizon building and test for chlorine and hydrochloric acid inside the Verizon operations center.

Dale Thomas, a facilities engineer for Verizon when he's not serving on MERIT, has been deployed to Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina, and to a train accident in Alabama.

Thomas, who's served with MERIT for eight years, said he doesn't get nervous when he puts on the hazmat suit and walks into a potentially dangerous situation. MERIT team members in hazmat suits have Bluetooth voice communication back to the command trailer, have air quality sensors with them, and go into a hazardous area in pairs.

And the team trains twice a year, he said.

"You get a little excited as you're getting ready, getting prepared," Thomas said. "We do a lot of this thing."

Mirla Valadez, a Verizon field technician and four-year MERIT member, said she'll definitely be nervous the first time she goes into a hazardous area. "You have to focus that energy," she said.

The hazmat team is a necessary role, team members said. Asked why they joined MERIT, some team members gave general answers about a long-term interest in emergency response.

Valadez volunteered because she's "interested in what it takes to keep a network going," she said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags David HydetelecommunicationDale Thomassecurityphysical securityMirla ValadezVerizon CommunicationsDick Price

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