Clicky

Thursday, January 21st, 2021

Damage to communications grid in Nashville bombing prompts questions of preparedness

James Keck

The violent suicide bombing that rocked downtown Nashville, Tenn., on Christmas morning and devastated dozens of businesses in the area also exposed the difficulties with an American reliance on reactive, rather than proactive, emergency planning efforts. 

While much focus has been placed on the bomber, Anthony Warner, and his potential motives, the wide-reaching effects of his act should be of greater concern, according to disaster management professor James Keck of the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program. At the time, the bombing caused severe structural and infrastructure damage to a nearby AT&T service facility, plunging a swath of AT&T’s service area into silence throughout the region. T-Mobile services faced interruption and the Nashville International Airport had to temporarily ground flights due to resulting communication issues. 

Poor handling, both before and immediately after the incident, raises serious concerns about the future, according to Keck, who has previously worked as Deputy State Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

“Dealing with terrorists is difficult,” Keck said. “They only have to get it right once. Authorities have to get it right every time. The electrical infrastructure for example is very vulnerable.”

He cited another incident from 2013 when domestic terrorists assaulted the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Metcalf Transmission Substation in Coyote, Calif. Gunmen cut fiber-optic telecommunications cable used by AT&T and then opened fire on 17 electrical transformers, resulting in more than $15 million worth of equipment damage.

“We don’t have 24/7 guarding of those kinds of facilities, so they’re out there, some are in remote areas,” Keck said. “Somebody that perhaps studies the infrastructure, knows a great deal about it, could wreak real havoc on the U.S. by knocking out power, which would also knock out communications.”

That said, he noted that there are infrastructure methods of hardening certain facilities against such attacks. Backup systems like batteries and generators can go a long way. Mobile communication platforms, hosted by certain communications companies, also can be rolled out throughout the country, according to Keck, as a means of countering the sort of widespread damage seen most often in events like hurricanes. Several of these rolled out following the bombing in Nashville. 

According to the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which provides communications connectivity for first responders through AT&T, the system first switched to temporary battery power in the hours immediately following the explosion. However, the bomb destroyed two local water mains in the process, flooding backup power generators and leaving them inoperable. 

For several hours, the network was left in a lurch as batteries ran out and services were unable to be rerouted. Local FirstNet services were restored within four hours after batteries were exhausted thanks to the deployment of Satellite Cells on Light Trucks and Cells on Wheels linked to FirstNet via satellite. Within 24 hours, AT&T deployed seven mobile cell sites downtown and throughout Nashville. As a result, the immediate vicinity had service again within the day, and nearly all other affected FirstNet users had services again within 48 hours.

“The purpose of FirstNet is to provide connectivity to first responders regardless of conditions or circumstances, and that places a heavy burden on the Authority and AT&T, the service provider, to deliver the most resilient network achievable,” FirstNet Authority Board Chair Tip Osterthaler said. “As we absorb the lessons learned from this attack, we will adjust our risk management and investment strategies as appropriate to deal with the changing threat environment.”

Mobile assets saved the situation in the case of Nashville, but they, like many redundancies that can mitigate the effects of attacks like this one, can be cost prohibitive. 

“In the threat analysis of these kinds of things, they’re looking at the frequency of these kinds of events – that’s where they’ll spend their money first,” Keck said. “Even if it might be a large magnitude item, if it’s not very likely to happen, the likelihood of spending money on it isn’t really high. There’s a number of systems that could be purchased and put in place – backups to backups, so to speak. 

“Most emergency management organizations have a number of backups, they have batteries, generators, even satellite phones for communications. Most of the first responders have those kinds of capabilities so they can always communicate in some manner. Some even have contracts with certain companies where they can provide mobile communications that are self-contained, have power, that sort of thing. But you have to understand these things cost money to maintain and keep them up to date. It’s a critical component of this, in addition to providing training for them.”

The nature of these communications platforms means that they can often be put on a truck or in a plane and moved around rapidly. Some reside in strategic locations. Yet Keck emphasized that they are very expensive, both to purchase and to maintain, and they can’t solve all problems at once, especially with lone wolf situations, where the broadcasting of a perpetrator’s intentions are limited. 

The best way forward, according to the professor, is through proactive intelligence gathering and assessment. Yet in pointing to the U.S. track record, in events like 9/11, Keck noted that the nation isn’t particularly well known for its success in this area. This hasn’t been helped by the fact that actual successes often aren’t publicized. 

“It’s a difficult thing to manage and deal with,” Keck said. “But we tend to be reactive instead of proactive.”