Contingency Communication Following a Catastrophic Failure

On September 20, 2017 Hurricane Maria (pictured) made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm. Hurricane Maria severely damaged or destroyed a significant portion of the region’s already fragile infrastructure. Following landfall, 95 percent of cell towers were out of service, and outages continued in the ensuing months.

This article is based on the 2017 Hurricane Season Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) After-Action Report and provides a summary of the lessons learned from Hurricane Maria to help improve community preparedness.

FEMA’s mission is to lead America to prepare for, prevent, respond to and recover from disasters with a vision of “A Nation Prepared.” FEMA can trace its beginnings back to 1803, with a Congressional Act which is generally considered the first piece of disaster legislation.

As the 2017 hurricanes demonstrated, the impacts of long-term infrastructure outages jeopardize the ability and speed of communities and individuals to recover, and can have dire economic and social consequences.

Resiliency is particularly important for lifelines such as communications. Every day, individuals, organizations, and government institutions provide critical services that depend on reliable access to communications systems.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, communication outages caused the following issues:

  • Impeded field personnel access to key operating and management systems
  • Lack of training on how to prioritize use so as not to overload contingency systems (e.g. satellite)
  • Reduced ability of disaster survivors to register for FEMA assistance
  • Delayed resource requests
  • Some FEMA satellite phones could not correctly operate in the Caribbean
  • Many staff who received satellite phones did not know how to properly use them
  • Demand for satellite phones exceeded supply, which produced procurement and logistical challenges

In the absence of mobile communications, the teams used paper registrations and forms on offline laptops and tablets. These new, non-standard processes caused inaccuracies and omissions, delaying the provision of benefits to survivors.

FEMA staff used handwritten resource requests and subsequently had to review, prioritize, sign, scan, and manually enter more than 2,000 requests into FEMA’s crisis management system, further contributing to delays.

FEMA also experienced shortfalls incorporating the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System into the response, and could have better prioritized the transportation and use of contingency communications equipment, and trained personnel.

Contingency Communication Methods

  • Mobile satellite
  • Mobile radio
  • Logistics support services to provide command and control communications, situational awareness, and program delivery
  • Satellite phones (procured and leased satellite devices)
  • “Health brigades” of local volunteers knocked on doors to identify and assist those who could not leave

The following is a summary of recommendations for communication providers from the 2017 Hurricane Season FEMA After-Action Report:


  • Communication providers should work with government to address interdependencies and cascading impacts among critical lifelines and cross-sector coordination
  • Arrange combined training exercises with government departments on how to use satellite phones and other emergency communications
  • Provide training on how to prioritize use to preserve contingency systems


  • Invest in redundant assets to maintain communication
  • Invest in more resilient infrastructure
  • These investments, including pre-disaster mitigation, will not only reduce disaster costs but also can have life-saving impacts during incidents
  • Adopt modern building codes and where necessary upgrade or relocate premises


  • Include continuity and resilient all-hazards communications capabilities in plans and guidance
  • Ensure staff are regularly trained on how to use the contingency communication resources

Maintaining effective communication following a catastrophic incident is crucial to the recovery of affected communities. Taking the above measures and having a contingency communication plan will provide a boost to community resilience.

Laura Toplis
Laura Toplis
Laura Toplis is the Director of BCP Builder, an online business continuity plan template, designed as an affordable solution to help SMEs with their business continuity planning. BCP Builder uses a simple, easy to follow tab format with guidance to help you prepare a business continuity plan. An easy-to-understand and attractive PDF of the professional plan can be printed at any time.

Visit BCP Builder’s Training Suite for free guidance on business continuity management.