During large disasters, like hurricanes, wildfires and terrorist attacks, people want emergency responders to arrive quickly and help people deal with the crisis. In order to do their best, police, medics, firefighters and those who manage them need lots of information: Who is located where, needing what help? And what equipment and which rescuers are available to intervene? With all of the technology we have, it might seem that gathering and sharing lots of information would be pretty simple. But communicating through a disaster is much more challenging than it appears.
The event itself can make communications worse, damaging networks and phone systems or cutting electricity to an area. And regular people often add to the problem as they overload mobile networks with calls, texts and other electronic messages checking on loved ones or seeking help.
As researchers about digital networks and emergency communications, we are developing a faster and more reliable way to send and receive large amounts of data through the internet in times of crisis. Working with actual responders and emergency managers, we have created a method for giving urgent information priority over other internet traffic, effectively creating a high-speed lane on the internet for use in emergencies. While a national emergency responder network initiative called FirstNet is beginning to get going, it requires building an all-new wireless network just for emergency services to use. By contrast, our system uses existing internet connections, while giving priority to rescue workers’ data.
At the moment, it’s reasonably common for communication networks to become overloaded when disaster strikes. When lots of people try to make cellphone calls or use mobile data, the networks get too busy for calls to connect and messages to go through.
The problem is that standard methods for routing traffic through the internet aren’t always able to handle all those connections at one time. In technical terms, the internet is a collection of more than 54,000 smaller networks. Some of the networks that make up the internet are quite large, like those belonging to major internet service providers or large corporations, but many of them are fairly small. No matter their size, each of these networks has equipment that lets it route traffic to each of the others.
Computer networks don’t all connect directly to each other. And their digital addresses…