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AT&T Tests Disaster Recovery Response Operations

AT&T recently conducted a network disaster recovery exercise in Houston. The drill sharpens skills in restoring and maintaining communications after hurricanes or other service disruptions. Ed Mayberry reports.


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Most news coverage in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike concerned restoration of power.  But AT&T’s Network Disaster Recovery team was able to quickly restore cell service, in part, due to drills like this one at the Sam Houston Race Park.  Kelly Morrison is with the disaster recovery team.

“We simulate the loss of an office, a major office that carries all the telecommunications in and out of a city, so we’re bringing the equipment that’s necessary to recover that office and simulate that with our team so we can stay practiced and exercise the equipment.”

The team assumes there’s no power or infrastructure, so they bring everything to be self-sufficient.  There were major problems in Galveston after Hurricane Ike.

“The Galveston wired office was overrun by the tidal surge.  And it was a fairly small office.  We brought in one trailer.  We brought it back up in just a couple of days.  The winds and everything else affected the cell towers, so we brought in satellite COLTS.  Those pieces of equipment let us bring up the cellular network in the area very quickly, so the first responders and the folks that were on the island had cellular communications.” 

And those were up until the regular cell towers could be used again, as Kevin Parker explains.

“COLT is Cell On a Light Truck.  So this is a cellular system–a cell cabinet — with antennas that transmits its backhaul by satellite system instead of typical wire line that we would tie into for a fixed cell site, or even microwave.”

Data Technology Leader Steve Niko says the trailers have everything that’s needed to restore service — even for an area as large as Greater Houston.

“So our largest office, this trailer has the capability of recovering.  The switches on this trailer assume the identity of the four switches that we have in Houston.”

Some disasters might involve hazardous materials.  Joe Starnes helps responders train for that possibility.

“This is a 4500 psi bottle and the bottle itself gives us anywhere from 35 to 45 minutes work time in the bottle.  So now, everything goes into his lungs comes from this bottle and not from the outside contaminated air.”

Operations Manager Gary Watco says the training pays off in cases like Hurricane Ike, when four feet of water invaded the switch office.

“Most of the equipment got wet, the power equipment got wet, the emergency generators got wet, and salt water doesn’t do well with any of this.  So we brought in equipment trailers and replaced the functionality of that building in those trailers.”    

The system was used at UTMB and at the DPS checkpoint going on to the island.  But Technology Manager John McCarthy says the team responds in similar fashion, whether its a hurricane or another type of disaster.

“Oh, yes, it’s the exact same response.  We just have to assess what’s lost in the particular area, develop a plan in terms of trailers and technologies to respond to that, and then mobilize those people and equipment to the site for the recovery.”

It took less than 48 hours for the team to turn the empty Sam Houston Raceway parking lot into a small village and become fully operational. 

Ed Mayberry, KUHF Houston Public Radio News.  

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