In the Aftermath
By Jeff Goldman, Fri Sep 28 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, competing wireless companies across America came together to help in the search for survivors.


Soon after four hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside on the morning of September 11th, employees at a number of U.S. wireless companies did what they could to help. Their work may ultimately have done little to affect the outcome of that day's events, but it says a lot about the determination that individuals everywhere found in the face of disaster.

One of the companies most centrally involved was Lucent Technologies. According to Lucent spokesman Frank Briamonte, the actions his company's employees took came out of a desperate desire to find something to do in the face of such helplessness. Shortly after the attacks, he recalls, members of Lucent's wireless team just started brainstorming, and they came up with a pretty straightforward plan of action.

"They concluded that they might be able to use some standard wireless technology-we're talking directional antennas and basic testing equipment-to detect signals coming from under the rubble if there were some operational cell phones still under there," Briamonte said.

On the morning of the 12th, the day after the attacks, a Lucent employee contacted his brother who worked for the New York Police Department, and shared the idea. Over the next few days, with the support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), employees from Lucent and a number of other companies formed the Wireless Emergency Response Team at Ground Zero to search for signals.

By using the test equipment to emulate a cell site, they were trying to get mobile phones in the wreckage to register with their equipment and provide the team with the data they needed to track down information about the ownership of the phones and their location. The closer they were to the wreckage, the better their chances of finding even the weakest of signals.

At the same time, FEMA was fielding calls from people who thought they'd received a phone call or a page from a survivor in the rubble. On the 14th, the Atlanta-based telco BellSouth stepped in by dedicating one of its sales call centers to fielding calls from friends and relatives with any information on victims' mobile phone or pager numbers: the call center received over 4000 calls in less than a week.

The information received at the call center was then passed on to the Wireless Emergency Response Team at Ground Zero, which went through call records to check on the last call made by each number, then tried various methods of contacting the devices themselves.

This effort required the participation of every provider in the area. Led by Karl Rauscher, Director of Network Reliability at Lucent Technologies, members of the Wireless Emergency Response Team ultimately included representatives from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Voicestream, Nortel, SkyTel, Telcordia Technologies, and countless other service providers, carriers, and equipment vendors.

Briamonte describes the first days of the effort as an "emotional roller coaster," as the team detected a number of registration signals, only to trace them to the mobile devices of nearby rescue workers. But in the end, no signals were detected in the wreckage.

Maybe the signals were too weak to be detected; maybe they got there too late; but most likely, the collapse of the buildings simply crushed everything inside. Still, the team worked 24 hours a day until Monday the 17th, when FEMA asked them to pull out.

The Lucent workers are still monitoring the network offsite. They are planning to document the experience for future reference in case the knowledge they gained should ever be needed again-and regardless of the final outcome, Briamonte says, it's encouraging to look back at the coordinated efforts that people were able to make on the spur of the moment.

"This was just some very creative brainstorming; very creative people coming up with ideas to use very standard, existing equipment for something that hadn't been used before," he said.



Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for Internet.com's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.