Inquest Into 7/7 Bombings: Have Telecoms Resilience Lessons Been Learned?

As the inquest into the July 7th bombings in London in 2005 begins today, many will have to re-live the horrors of that day to help build a picture of exactly what happened and to understand if anything different could have been done to save lives.

Through this inquest and these types of tragedies both government authorities and private sector businesses can assess their continuity and disaster recovery plans in order to improve them for future threats.

The Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office have produced an interim guide towards achieving resilient telecommunications. The focus is clearly on highlighting the issues raised by the 7/7 bombings as the following extract illustrates:

“The response to the incidents in London on 7th July, 2005, by the media, public and emergency services resulted in increased demand for both fixed and mobile communications. In London, demand for use of the GSM (note 1) mobile networks greatly exceeded capacity and callers experienced difficulty in making and receiving calls for a few hours after the incident. This exposed some shortfalls in arrangements for those with a need for resilient communications. Although July 7 highlighted issues surrounding GSM-based communications, severe degradation or failure of telecommunications have been cited as a major concern underlying the response to many incidents including: the flooding in Boscastle (August, 2004) and Carlisle (January, 2005), and in the USA following hurricane Katrina (August, 2005).”

The lesson to be learned from the 7/7 bombings was that both emergency services and businesses alike should not be placing so much reliance on the GSM network for telecoms during an incident.

The interim guidance document clearly showed that:

“In and around London on 7 July by around 11:00 users of GSM public land mobile networks (PLMNs) were experiencing considerable difficulty in making and receiving voice calls and SMS messages( note 2). On the fixed-line public switched telephone network (PSTN), although the number of calls attempted doubled, callers did not experience the same degree of difficulties. This is due to the fixed network having, in general, greater capacity than mobile networks.”

So are emergency services and businesses implementing a robust PSTN based telecoms resilience strategy? I think the jury is still out on that one, but let it be known that the warnings have been made and the lessons have been taken to be learned from, so in theory anyone caught short in the future should have no excuses.

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