Telework, disasters, and how to overcome them

I have commented in the past about the ability of telework to mitigate the effects of disasters but hurricane Sandy gives a new twist to the issues. Most of the disasters that occur in places like California tend to be of the earthquake variety. The central effect of earthquakes is that ruptures in land surface break roads, bridges, and highways, with the disruptions lasting sometimes for months or even years at a time. Yet the information infrastructure—the telephone network, Internet and electrical power networks—tends to survive the earthquake or is quickly repairable. In these cases organizations that telework can continue operations with no or few interruptions. This is generally the case in non-earthquake related disasters as well, including blizzards, floods and fires where the roads may be blocked but the information infrastructure is intact.

However, in the case of disasters like major hurricanes and floods the situation can get a little more complicated. Side effects of Sandy included regional power outages that lasted days not because of problems with power plants but because the electrical utilities simply ran out of utility poles. Most utilities have dozens of extra poles in storage for the usual sort of local outage issues. But in the case of Sandy apparently tens of thousands of utility poles needed to be replaced. Consequently, weeks after Sandy’s passage many people in the Northeast are still without power. With no power there is no telework. Of course there is also no  heating, lighting, refrigeration or many others of the niceties that constitute modern life. So rule two of disaster survival is the need for dependable electrical power (rule one is simply physical survival of people and buildings). If electricity is available it is quite likely that telework is also available.

The problem is that disasters like hurricane Sandy are likely to occur with increasing frequency and intensity in coming years, all as a result of accelerating global warming. Recently several comments have appeared in the media to the effect that we have had at least two 100-year storms in the last decade. So it seems pretty clear that the problem is not going to go away. On the contrary, it is likely to get worse. And worse.

So what is the role of telework as a useful option for future disasters? For most local and regional disasters telework still seems to be an important tool for keeping business going. Telework can overcome pesky annoyances like blocked or missing roads, or flooded rivers, as long as the electrical and telecommunications grids are functioning. But if the electrical grid is down for more than a few hours (that is, the length of time that computers can run on batteries) then telework is only available to those locations where alternative power sources are available and working. The obvious first line of defense in those cases are things like auxiliary generators. The trouble is that auxiliary generators tend to be less efficient and more polluting than the huge generators operating the power grid. But help is coming. More and more households are becoming solar energized. Given sufficient solar panel power output (and battery storage) affected homes and businesses can become independent of the grid and thereby teleworkable. Even to the extent that the household car is included.

Similarly, it is worth considering the possibilities of mesh networks as accessories to, or as substitutes for, the contemporary star networks that provide most telephone and Internet access. Mesh networks don’t require the usual fixed link between home, utility pole, telephone or cable center in order to function effectively. They depend on small transceivers located in each home in a neighborhood or region. The transceivers send information back and forth to each other and, as long as one or more are connected to the Internet, to the outside world. If some of the transceivers are knocked out the mesh simply routes signals through alternate paths to produce the same results.

So as you develop your personal plans for disaster mitigation keep in mind that telework, combined with an investment in solar power for your home or business—possibly with mesh network connection, may pay off handsomely in the future.

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