Schools Incorporate Wi-Fi into Disaster-Response Plans

By Amy Mayer

January 21, 2008

These are not your father's firedrills. One school district in California works with Trapeze to deploy a WLAN that will help the whole community during emergencies and natural disasters.

The Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District in California serves an area that also houses the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a section of Interstate 580, a railroad line, and a growing population. School district Information Support Services Specialist Kevin Peterson says these are among the unique aspects of the community. They contributed to the school district's desire to integrate itself into emergency planning and disaster response. 

Using a Trapeze Networks Smart Mobile Wi-Fi deployment with, currently, 550 access points and 22 wireless LAN controllers, the school district is able to offer network services to the police and fire departments and could maintain those, using generators, even if power lines went down. In addition, in the event that area residents sought shelter in a school building during an evacuation, Peterson says,  "when somebody comes in there, an outside person, we could set [the network] up" so they could get on the Internet to send e-mail or use the phone via Skype.

During non-emergency times, police officers have access to student databases and other information they might need in conjunction with school safety. That access is longstanding, but with the Wi-Fi deployment they can now use it without carrying a laptop into the building and plugging it in.

"We can have a police car pull in, the guy pulls out his laptop and, bam! He's connected," Peterson says. In fact, the officer could stop at a school and use the network to file reports back to his station, regardless of whether the incident he's reporting had anything to do with the school district. In effect, the schools' Wi-Fi expands the officers' ability to stay connected while on the beat. When an incident does unfold at a school, the officer can use the network to control the lighting, monitor surveillance cameras, and even look up the parents' contact information for a student who's caught doing something illegal or inappropriate.

David Cohen, director of product marketing at Trapeze, says Livermore is among the first school district Wi-Fi deployments—the only one he's worked with—to "make emergency response a key part of what they're doing." Disaster response and Wi-Fi are a natural fit, he says, because things like surveillance cameras and location tracking that previously required their own infrastructure can now be integrated into the WLAN. A user can monitor security cameras or use Trapeze's Location Appliance software to find mobile hardware. All Wi-Fi-enabled devices can be tracked with the software, but other items only need a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tag to also become visible on the network, for tracking purposes. On a day-to-day basis, this technology allows tracking of laptops, projectors, and other mobile equipment within the school buildings. But Radio Frequency ID tags allow anything—even people—to be tracked.

Last November, Peterson ran around a mock emergency response center with an RFID tag around his neck. He says as the emergency personnel simulated how they would communicate and respond in the event of an earthquake, the district superintendent was in San Diego watching the exercise unfold via the Internet. Individual school principals used laptops to check on their school buildings "and then they could go in front of a camera and actually talk back and forth with our little mini [emergency operations center]."

Cohen says the Livermore demonstration started from the premise that power lines and cell towers were down and asked the question: if all we have is a generator and Wi-Fi equipment, can we set up the necessary communications?

"What the demonstration proved is that it can work," he says.

"There's certainly a lot of value in just everyone [involved] being able to communicate with each other," he says, adding that the next step, which is still being tested and trouble-shot, is determining the best method for securing Internet access in such a scenario. Cell towers are one option, though they are often quickly overwhelmed in disaster situations. WiMAX is another possibility, which got a run during the demonstration.

Cohen says many of Trapeze's clients are educational institutions and they are increasingly concerned about emergency preparedness and disaster response. He says even as they weigh the costs of different options, school officials express that while they know they can't prevent emergencies they are striving to "be more nimble" if one happens at or near a school.

"Having a robust Wi-Fi network working there, even in the event of an emergency when other networks are down, is a very big benefit," he says.

Currently two schools in the Livermore district have fully functional Wi-Fi networks, serving a total of 13,000 students, faculty, and staff. The other 19 schools will be coming on line, too. Peterson says many schools already have back-up generator power, as does the district administration building, where the backhaul to the Internet is housed. In the event of a power outage at Livermore High School, for example, he says, "we could fire up all the communications in the school with the generator."

Of course, Peterson points out that the Livermore school district's Wi-Fi network, which has a budget of $600,000 including Trapeze hardware and some infrastructure improvements at some of the schools, affords myriad opportunities besides disaster response. Agriculture students can take a Wi-Fi-enabled cart with several computers outside. Some computers, he says, even have USB-enabled microscopes.

"The class isn't locked into a normal classroom," he says.

Many students simply sit in the lunchroom or outside using laptops or mobile devices to do research or homework or just send e-mail and play games, he adds. And regardless of the effort and planning put into emergency preparedness, most officials would probably agree that they'd be happy to never have a disaster that required it.

Amy Mayer is a freelance writer and independent radio producer based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Read and listen to her work at her website.

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