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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

What if nothing works? Team's prepared if cyber attack occurs

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A portable communications tower from Williamson County helps emergency workers stay in contact during a cyber-attack exercise held at the Tennessee Fire and Codes Academy.
(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely) [Order this photo]
What if you wake up one morning and nothing works?

No power or water. The phones are out, both landline and cellular. You drive down to fill up the car and the pumps won't accept your credit card. Needless to say, the Internet is down too.

It turns out that the nation has been the target of a cyber-attack.

To prepare for such an event, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) conducted a four-day exercise at the Tennessee Fire and Codes Academy in Deason, which wraps up today.

A member of the Tennessee State Guard demonstrates how e-mail and photos would be sent over ham radio if the communications infrastructure was brought down.
(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely) [Order this photo]
The Backbone

The exercise brought together amateur radio users, the national and state guards, the Red Cross, the state department of health, even Bridgestone and FedEx, along with emergency responders from all over the state.

The purpose: to train how to coordinate electronic messages in response to a situation where a cyber-attack against the nation has taken down the Internet and other critical infrastructure.

According to TEMA spokesman Jermey Heidt, the backbone of modern communications is computers, no matter if it's a cell phone call, a bank transaction, or Facebook -- everything runs across what they call the commercial backbone.

"We're so connected, so used to that, if it goes down, it's very hard to comprehend how that's going to effect our lives," Heidt said.

National Guard and members of TEMA would be getting their information over ham radio, which are hooked up to dial-up modems instead of phone lines.
(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely) [Order this photo]
Back to dial-up

If any of those systems went down, they would lose the ability to interact and connect, and the system carries much of the public safety transmissions. Going from one radio tower to another, the signal goes through that backbone.

With the backbone compromised, other methods would have to be used. During the four-day exercise, every county in the state participated, as well as in surrounding states. It's key to letting emergency services know what going on.

The amateur (ham) radio community plays a vital part in the drill, Heidt said, though WINLINK, which is a way to send electronic messages, photos, files over the air.

Remember that sound that the old dial-up modems had? There was a lot of that heard Friday, as messages were sent at speeds of 800 baud between ham operators across the state and country.

Instead of hooking up to the phone line, which would be down, the modems are jacked into the ham radios, transmitting the information to areas not affected by the cyber-attack.

Businesses involved

Laina Stanford, a logistics specialist for the state department of health, said a countless number of response teams participate in the exercise, with the various armed services lending a hand through MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System), where ham operators would be assisting the federal government.

FedEx and Bridgestone also have emergency response teams, and everyone at the Codes Academy were either talking to each other, or someone out of county or the state.

Two portable communication towers were erected on site, and the hum of gas and propane generators filled the air to power the statewide network. A cyber-attack on Verizon or the AT&T network would disrupt everything.

While portable radios would work over the distance of a few miles, calling in resources from outside the area would require other methods.

Some of the ham operators were pretending to transmit law enforcement information during day two, when the drill imagines that it was 48 hours after the infrastructure failed, and at that point "there would be people freaking out, a lot of civil unrest," Stanford said.

Michael Hamby of Moore County explains how ham operators worked together earlier this week when tornados struck Lincoln County.
(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely) [Order this photo]
Local help

Michael Glennon works with the base support team at AEDC, and is also a member of MARS, with his own trailer set up with a generator and loaded with ham and computer equipment.

His job during the drill was being a back-up for the civil authorities, but in real life, he also works with Coffee and Bedford County EMAs in case of an actual emergency.

Micheal Hamby is an emergency coordinator, operating out of Moore County, and helps Bedford as well. He and his wife got to use their skills just this past week when tornadoes moved into Tennessee, striking Lincoln County.

When the storms hit, the local weather net went to work, with Hamby's wife checking social media sites while Michael monitored Duck River Electric's website for power outages, listening to police scanners at the same time.

"We were trying to get as much information from all sources, and one of (Moore County's) deputies has a ham radio in his truck," Hamby explained.

He's been also talking to local churches with shelters about putting in the infrastructure of antennas just in case the hams need to move inside, complimenting Bedford's "great shelter program."

While his father is a ham too, talking to people in other countries, Hamby said he would rather keep the line of communication open locally in case of a disaster.