US mobile networks at severe risk from fires

By Chris Barncard
Wednesday, 11 November, 2020

US mobile networks at severe risk from fires

Thousands of US mobile phone transceiver sites are at moderate-to-high risk of failure due to fire damage.

About one in four people in the United States live in areas served by cellular phone towers at risk of an outage caused by wildfires, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Their study, presented at a meeting of internet network researchers, found more than 430,000 cell network transceivers covering approximately 85 million people are in areas the US Forest Service considers at moderate or high wildfire risk. The research suggests ways to make the sites more fire-hardy.

“This is a kind of roadmap for cell service providers to make assessments, allocate resources and take steps to make their infrastructure more resilient in the face of this threat,” said Paul Barford, a UW–Madison professor of computer science.

Paul Barford and Carol Barford, who directs UW–Madison’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment and is a co-author of the wildfire study, also collaborated on a 2018 project describing thousands of kilometres of fibre-optic cable in the US likely to be inundated by rising sea levels. Wildfire danger has a distinctly different footprint, and presented a complex set of prediction problems.

“Assessing the risk of fire is complex, according to graduate student Scott Anderson, first author of the study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “It varies a lot over time based on the amount of fuel available, how dry that fuel can get as climate changes and almost unpredictable factors like the source of ignition.”

The researchers worked with historical records of wildfires and matched the Forest Service’s map of Wildfire Hazard Potential to a crowdsourced database of cellular network equipment locations from OpenCelliD.

Six states — California, Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina — each have at least 5000 transceivers in high-risk areas.

The threat will only grow as climate change makes many areas more fire prone, and as more people make their homes near the cusp of both wilderness and civilisation.

“The areas that need the most attention are those that are where urban growth has gotten very close to forests and other sources of fuel for wildfires,” Paul Barford said. “The service providers are very interested in having their infrastructure available in those areas, because that’s what their customers are asking for. But those are also places where there’s the greatest risk of damage because of fires.”

The biggest threat to cell service may not be direct fire damage to a tower.

“When we looked at fires in the fall of 2019 in California, the major reason that providers reported loss of services was due to power outages,” Anderson said. “Powerlines are just as vulnerable, or maybe more vulnerable, to outage or to damage than the cell towers.”

“Cell towers in high-risk areas all need to have backup power, battery backup or generator backup, that can enable them to continue to operate even if fire cuts off their primary power,” Paul Barford said.

In high-fire-risk areas, priority should be given to more open, accessible property when choosing tower sites, and more care taken to maintain a physical buffer around sites by regularly removing vegetation that could draw a fire right up to delicate equipment.

The stakes can be high. More than 80% of California’s 911 calls come from mobile phones, and cellular networks are vital to first responders trying to contain a fire and organise in an emergency. When firefighting and rescue agencies forecast the direction a fire is expected to take, they need to quickly deliver warnings and instructions to the people in harm’s way.

Image credit: ©

Originally published here.

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