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Conference Looks At Keeping Communications Running After Quake

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – Taking a lesson learned from the Wine Country wildfires, Bay Area city leaders are looking for better ways to communicate when a major earthquake strikes.

On Tuesday, emergency responders and government officials from across California gathered in the Presidio to plan for possible disaster.

"We can patch any radio to any radio across a multitude of formats, all using this right here," said Ross Peterson with the San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services. "There is no two ways about it. Your landline may or may not come back, but your cell phones will be down."

That was just one focus of the Epicenter Earthquake Conference: how will we all communicate when things just stop working?

"We have the tools as first responders to communicate in an emergency," said Michelle Geddes of the SF Dept. of Emergency Management.

"It's all in the trucks. The dispatchers know it. It is practiced on a daily basis," said Peterson.

The cell phones used by almost every Bay Area resident are a very different story. There is a big push to get private service providers ready to bounce back with some kind of service as quickly as possible.

"We provide data communications, wi-fi. We have emergency telephone banks we can set up," said CISCO Systems spokesperson Dave Kaufman.

But it doesn't end with these emergency trucks. The networks themselves are getting reconfigured for a disaster mode that will provide a way of managing the tremendous traffic that will follow an earthquake. That plan starts with what you might call a cellular fast lane for first responders.

"It will offer things like priority and preemption on the cell towers, so when first responders are trying to communicate in a disaster they will have the level of priority that they need," said Geddes.

Another bit of traffic control would on data to keep the wounded system from overloading. No photos or Facebook updates would be allowed, but users could send a text message. It is the kind of limited service some North Bay residents may have experienced during last year's fires.

"Maybe not at the same level of bandwidth where you can download images and videos, but they would have the macro network up so we can send quick messages and SMS texts," explained Geddes.

That is if the emergency system is working at all in the wake of a major disaster. So think of extremely limited cell phone service as possibly a best case scenario.

"It's absolutely scary. Do not expect it to work," said Peterson.

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