Crisis Shows Value of Emergency Planning


I was walking down New York's Fifth Avenue on the morning of Sept. 11. It was a beautiful, sky-blue day along midtown Manhattan's rows of luxury stores — a contradiction to the fact that only a few miles away, things were going horribly wrong.

At the south end of the city, I could see black smoke pouring from a single World Trade Center tower and a plume of flames shooting from a corner of the roof. The other tower was already on the ground. A massive gray cloud of smoke and dust slowly drifted across the lower skyline.

Thousands of people were on Fifth Avenue, mostly staring at the eerie scene. Many stood on street corners in stunned silence, some took photos and others walked along seeming to attempt to maintain life as usual. Some were crying.

Cell phones often are used like fashion accessories on Manhattan streets but suddenly, they became indispensable tools. Anyone who had a phone appeared to be using it.

Some callers could get connected and others — like me — could not. The chances of getting through appeared to depend on the carrier, the caller's location or simply the luck of the draw.

"Man, I can't get through to my girlfriend," a guy next to me complained. "Can you get through?" he asked a friend, who acknowledged that he could.

By the time I reached the heart of midtown, the shock and confusion was palpable.

Wireless communication had become futile. Lines of people quickly formed at pay phones, but when dialed, local numbers produced only busy signals.

With communications out and local transportation completely shut down, people felt stranded and helpless. As they realized they were unable to reach family or friends, fear spread.

I was in midtown that day to attend The Kagan Broadband Summit at the Park Lane Hotel. As the summit was about to begin, attendees quickly gathered around a TV in an elegant conference room and watched the horrible events unfold.

Moderator Paul Kagan and conference panelists admirably attempted to press onward — until the magnitude of the terrorist attack became known, forcing an end to the conference and the rest of cable's Diversity Week activities. Suddenly, broadband was the furthest thing from anyone's mind.

But that fateful day underscored the importance of reliable telecommunications and electronic media.

The national crisis provided an extraordinary test for local cable systems, cable and broadcast news networks, telephone systems, local TV and radio stations, Internet communications and Web sites.

The acts of war strained our communications infrastructure. Despite the agonizing experiences caused by temporary outages, U.S. commercial telecommunications systems and electronic media prevailed. They bent, but did not break.

Most Americans had a range of available options for information or communication, including TV, radio, landline phones, mobile phones and the Internet. Even TV stations that were knocked out by the elimination of the World Trade Center's antenna were restored in due course.

It would not be economical for companies to gear their communications networks for the type of staggering traffic loads that occurred that day. But the crisis demonstrated the critical need for adequate backups and emergency contingency plans.

There is never a greater need for communications services than when there is an emergency. Services that perform well during such times will find the public eternally indebted to them.

Mobile-phone service enabled victims to make calls from the hijacked planes as others made calls beneath the rubble. There's evidence that communication with a passenger aboard Flight 93 may have led passengers to prevent that plane from reaching its intended target.

Although shocking, the continuous live TV coverage alerted and mobilized the nation within minutes, then provided a nonstop stream of vital information. Network news anchors and correspondents provided remarkably composed reportage, while on-site crews risked life and limb in the disaster areas.

Despite my initial inability to make any calls that morning, I luckily got through to my wife by placing a collect call from a pay phone near Grand Central Station. When she told me the second tower had collapsed, I couldn't speak.

I went into Grand Central in hope of getting a train home north to Westchester County, but the terminal was then evacuated for the second time that day. By early afternoon, the trains were running. In a short time I was home, feeling relieved and fortunate.

The cable systems, news networks, broadcast stations, on-air talent, production staffs, engineering teams and on-site crews who covered the disaster deserve more praise than any stack of Emmy Awards could ever provide.

A silver lining for cable operators is that transportation disruptions have produced an opportunity to provide more broadband business services, including support for videoconferencing and telecommuting. Consumer demand for in-home entertainment should also remain strong.

I hope all telecommunications services and media outlets will dedicate themselves to ensuring their reliability and security in the face of any similar crisis — the likes of which I pray we never see again.