Recently I had a chance to see the Cisco Network Emergency Response Vehicle. It is a truck put together by Cisco as a technology demonstration, but also is used by teams within Cisco to assist emergency response efforts. These guys and this truck have been to New Orleans after Katrina, to New York City for 9/11, and recently to San Diego to assist with the wildfires. My tour guide was Bob Browning, the senior manager of the Tactical Operations Support team. That guy really knows his stuff when it comes to handling disaster situations, with practical experience gained from every situation he’s worked in.
From a technology standpoint the truck is pretty cool. Built on an International Truck DuraStar 4300 chassis it is designed to be completely standalone, with its own power, HVAC, and network connectivity. It has a 1.8 meter satellite dish on it, providing a 3 megabit uplink. One of the first things Mr. Browning noted was that satellite bandwidth is limited only by money, at $7000 per megabit per month. Ouch. That also comes with a speed-of-light governed 600 millisecond latency. As the saying goes, though, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. Given the choice between total blindness and 600 ms latency, well, it’s an easy decision.
The truck is designed to be easy to operate. Mr. Browning refers to people as “intellectual capital,” and noted that during a crisis your organization might lose access to its intellectual capital, so just about anybody needs to be able to get the systems up and running. The satellite link is the key to just about all the technology on the truck, and with the push of a button it’ll find the satellite and connect itself. In fact, he said that given proper documentation, a person unfamiliar with the vehicle was able to get it all running in under 7 minutes.
After the satellite uplink the next most important boxes are the two 3800-series routers in the upper left corner of that photo. One handles the uplink and does QoS, the other runs an instance of Call Manager to handle all the IP telephony and telepresence built into the truck. There are eight VHF, UHF, and ITAC radios wired in, and an instance of their IPICS software manages it all. IPICS is pretty cool, in that you can bridge all of the media in the truck whichever way you need. It also permits folks to call in via their cell phones, to converse with people over the radios or on other phones. In fact, they have it set up so that the ’1′ and ’2′ buttons on a phone emulate push-to-talk capabilities of radios. Very useful if your intellectual capital is still en route to the scene, or stuck in Hawaii with only their laptop. If you can connect to the truck you can talk with anybody else who can connect.
This truck has a conference area in the back, with an HDTV where they can use their telepresence equipment to get a 720p 30 fps teleconference going over the satellite link. The truck has four perimeter cameras, one movable mast camera, and the ability to view, record, and rebroadcast broadcast & satellite TV, as well as play DVD & VHS content back. It uses a Digital Media Encoder 2000 to do the rebroadcasting over IP. The teleconferencing system also has access to the output from the cameras and the media encoder. As a demo they called a guy at his desk back in North Carolina and he commented that he was glad he wasn’t on that trip, since he could see it was snowing.
It is possible to cover about 350 square miles of area from this truck, using wireless equipment in the field that mesh back to the truck’s network uplink. They didn’t talk too much about this, except that all the services in the truck can then be extended to that network. Sounds pretty useful to me (sounds like WiMax to me, actually).
At $1 million dollars for this truck the price seems pretty steep, but it is also a technology demo. You certainly don’t have to buy something this big, either. They can outfit other vehicles, like Chevy Suburbans or Dodge Sprinters, with much of this equipment. And in most cases the point is that even a small implementation of these technologies can save lots of money. Radio systems are very expensive and retrofitting them to interoperate is time-consuming, expensive, and tricky to plan. A system like this, that can bridge radios together, is purely investment protection. Use the devices you have and get some additional capabilities as icing.
Cisco will sell you one of these however you want it, but they also offer it as a managed service where they will help you keep track of the data you need to get running again in case of a crisis. Remember that during a crisis your intellectual capital, your staff, might be dead, injured, or separated from you, and the information you need to get running again might be buried under rubble or burned up. Cisco will help store that information and retrieve it again if you need it. They’ll also help you think through your plans. Mr. Browning asked a lot of good questions of us, showing his experience with disasters:
9/11 caused a total shutdown of the airspace over the U.S., which also meant all shipping stopped. Which meant we couldn’t get equipment to build a command post very easily. Where will you get equipment if you have a problem? Can you scavenge it from somewhere? Who?
The cell phone network is completely oversubscribed. That’s their business model, but it makes it completely useless in an emergency because with everybody using it nobody will get through. In an emergency are you counting on being able to call your staff?
Overall, an excellent field trip, satisfying my technolust as well as making me think about a lot of the issues that surround disasters. A big thank you to Bob Browning and his team for the excellent tour!