At an AT&T conference earlier this week in Landover, Md., showcasing the team's accomplishments, George Foresman, undersecretary for preparedness at the Homeland Security Department, said events like Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina forced officials "to really begin to understand how these [communications] networks -- that were like magic -- work."
"We are about to go through what I like to call the preparedness revolution," Foresman said.
AT&T first assembled disaster response teams in 1991. Now four of them are strategically placed in locations across the United States. "We don't reveal the locations of our facilities," said Bob Desiato, the network disaster recovery group manager.
In most disaster scenarios, teams are able to complete their work in 24 hours, Desiato said.
Sept. 11 presented a special challenge, however, because when AT&T's World Trade Center communications hub was reduced to rubble, blanket restrictions on air travel prevented the response team from airlifting the components necessary to build a makeshift center. It could only park a van in downtown Manhattan. That van became the lifeline for about 100 of the most important phone lines in the city, including those serving then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Most of the response team had to stay on the opposite side of the Hudson River, in northern New Jersey. Still, it took only 60 hours to get thousands of phone and data lines reconnected, Desiato said.
"September 11 was our first big rollout," he said. "We always thought we would be able to fly it in." When an AT&T response team was deployed to repair 162 damaged communications hubs affected by Hurricane Katrina, the company faced a different challenge: It had to coordinate with local, state and federal law enforcement authorities, due to reports of looting and widespread lawlessness. The team's ongoing interaction with officials smoothed the way for efficient identity checks, and authorities even pitched in to help guard AT&T facilities.
"It's very beneficial for us to be working with [authorities]," said Robin Bienfait, AT&T's vice president of network operations, who oversees the disaster squad.
In the Katrina effort, the teams were equipped with electric generators powering each trailer full of servers, and a fibrous web that became a lifeline to the badly damaged communication infrastructures. While the federal government was buying space on cruise ships for its disaster teams, AT&T employees slept in already purchased motor homes, with water supplied from an independent source, to ensure they kept themselves, and sensitive equipment, clean.
Members of AT&T's disaster response teams even are equipped with biohazard suits so they can, if called upon, conduct field operations in the aftermath of a "dirty" bomb detonation or anthrax attack.
But after Hurricane Katrina, the team found it still had much to learn, and that some additional materials - namely, the parts to run a complete shower - would be needed for future long-term exercises.
"Down in Katrina, we got a bit gamey after a while," Desiato said.