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Wireless Victories

Wireless Victories

The president tells us we are fighting a new kind of war. We have witnessed the first battle ­ fought on our turf. The battle of September 11 was fought in part not just with communication, but with wireless communication ­ the new manifestation of an age-old weapon. Here are the stories of six U.S. citizens and their personal, wireless victories over the events of that day.

Stephanie Stegich and Gregory Clayman were en route from New York to Los Angeles. They were airborne before and during the terrorists' triple strike. Their pilot came on the intercom some two hours into the flight, calmly stating that they would be making an unexpected landing in Kansas City, Missouri. He assured them it was just a precaution. Something was happening in New York, a threat against planes, and there was a system-wide landing of aircraft.

This was his explanation, the best possible under the circumstances, and yet inexplicable. Stephanie and Greg reacted. "Greg and I immediately thought, well, that just seems odd, you know, something's going on. So I turned on my cell phone; he turned on his cell phone. He also had a BlackBerry. And we started receiving UPOC messages about what was happening."

UPOC, among other things, is a cross-platform messaging technology for wireless devices. It is also the company that Stephanie and Greg work for.

"We started receiving UPOC messages about what was happening, I mean minute by minute messages," explains Stephanie, like, "Oh my God, I just saw a plane crash into the World Trade Center... . Then, Oh another explosion' and then the Pentagon explosion... . We have a guy in our office in operations who was in the military. He said [that] he got the word about the planes being grounded. So he sent a message [that] all planes in the U.S. have been ordered to the ground. So we started receiving all this. We sort of knew what was happening."

While most people around them didn't know, Stephanie and Greg knew immediately that we were under attack. They also learned quickly that their friends and co-workers were okay. There were 10 of some 42 UPOC employees in their offices at Broadway and Rector Street at the time of the attacks. That's about two blocks from where the World Trade Center buildings used to stand. Everyone from their office escaped safely.

Text Messaging Was Most Reliable
Wherever people were massed together and someone was communicating by text message, the reactions came, exclaiming, hey, you mean that worked? So how and why did text messaging work when cell-phone traffic was jammed? The layer of bandwidth that UPOC and SMS text messaging operate on is called the SS7 layer. This layer isn't used much and the text messages sent were so small that they took up very little space.

As Greg puts it, "Even if voice networks are clogged you're still able to ping phones with messages [like]: Are you near a tower? How near are you to a tower? What's your signal strength? And, you know, I'm alive, those sorts of things."

Messages got through reliably and frequently. Stephanie received her first message about the attacks as soon as she turned on her text messaging that morning; it was dated a minute after the first plane hit the WTC. Text messaging also helped them get their business back on track. Within a few days of the disaster, they were able to get temporary office space, communicate about meeting arrangements, and find out the status of their permanent offices.

No one thought for a moment how that day might have been without wireless communication. No one that I interviewed had even considered it. That's a natural reaction, yet I wanted to know. Here's Stephanie's answer: "I was already distraught. I think I would have been more distraught not knowing what was going on and then not being able to at least know that everyone we work with was okay."

Greg had similar thoughts: "We all would have been in the dark. I wouldn't have known what was going on with the plane; I wouldn't have known until I saw [it] on CNN. I wouldn't have been able to contact my family; they wouldn't have been able to contact me. We [probably] wouldn't have known if our people were alive or dead for days... . We wouldn't have been able to coordinate another office."

Within 48 hours their determined colleagues had acquired temporary offices and were working in them. They relied on wireless communications to work on the fly. They got back into their original office building within a week and a half. Doing the work already at hand and the work of pulling together and getting back into their permanent digs was all facilitated by wireless communication. Wireless communication is known for giving us offices without walls. Here the flexibility of wireless helped them to do without the walls that terrorism had torn down. "Without wireless communication I guarantee you that we wouldn't be sitting working in our offices today," says Greg.

Pagers Seemed Like a Lifeline
Judith Longman, an RN and a Los Angeles, California, resident, keeps in regular communication with the father of her adopted children. He lives in New York, and they talk regularly over their T900 pagers. He worked at World Trade Center 4. On hearing the reports by radio, Judith sent him a message by pager, "Are you all right?" she asked. He replied that he was on the subway heading to the Upper East Side after leaving his office on foot.

Judith told me that that one reply was worth all they had spent to get their paging service. They paged each other throughout that day though phone access was spotty throughout the country. Judith was more easily able to reach his family in Nebraska than he was.

Some of their family members are hard of hearing while others are deaf. Text messaging bypassed what would have been a frustrating experience had they had to rely on phones and the services in place for deaf callers. The pager text-messaging service permitted immediate, short messages to everyone on their family network. As with so many, the value of things, other than the people in her life and the means she used to stay close to them, faded from view that day. As Judith put it, "I realized in the course of [the] day that the most important thing to me was people and the relationships I value ­ the rest was all just stuff. I needed to hold on to... connections with the people in my life, and my pager truly seemed like a lifeline."

Judith provided extensive details about what she expects from her wireless service in the future. She wants a coverage plan that includes everyone in her family from the middle-school children on up. "We already have seven pagers in our family network, and I would gladly add my two sixth graders, and maybe my four elementary school kids, if we could have some kind of a discount group rate or family deal. Let us combine the service, as cell phones combine minutes, under one account."

Judith's request touched on a recurring theme. She wants everyone she knows, everyone she cares about, on the type of service that enabled her to keep in contact that day when other forms of communication failed. Judith wants a broader coverage area too. Because of this event, people want never to be out of touch, and they now know that there are forms of wireless communications like text messaging that can provide them that comfort. Judith also wants a "locating device" on the pager, so those who are lost can be found. She wants the pagers to be harder for kids and adults to lose. She wants manufacturers to install an alarm so the pagers can be found, like those that TV and VCR remote control devices have.

Carrying Multiple Devices Paid Off
Peter Shankman was leaving NYC for Colorado by way of Newark Airport. His plane never took off. "We were delayed due to traffic taking off ahead of us. I started nodding off, and woke up when the captain told us that we were fourth for takeoff, but held, as something [had] happened at the World Trade Center. They thought a small plane had crashed into the tower, and they assumed it was an accident. We were on the ground for an additional 15 minutes or so, and then we went back to the gate, as fast as I can ever recall traveling in a plane on the ground."

During the crisis, Peter kept in touch through varied services and devices. With a Visor handheld and wireless modem, and a Skytel two-way pager, he put the pieces together of what was transpiring. He first got word that we were under attack through his Visor. That information reached him via an e-mail mailing list. His Skytel came in handy for sending messages to his parents' cell phones, reassuring them that he was safe. He also used the UPOC service over his Skytel to notify hundreds of people in various groups that he was all right.

When asked how that day might otherwise have been, a familiar word reappears. "I would have been completely out of touch. As someone who relies heavily on wireless communications, my logic behind carrying all of my devices everywhere was well proved. I wouldn't have been able to stay in touch with my family and friends, and since I was trapped at Newark Airport, [I] couldn't get home either. Wireless [communication] proved to be my only lifeline."

As with Judith Longman, Peter Shankman found wireless communication to be a lifeline. Peter, like so many, got the news as to what was happening almost immediately. He was able to discover quickly that his loved ones were okay; he was able to keep them and others informed throughout that he was all right. He was also a central point of communications, helping those around him to keep in touch. "Wireless communication made a very tough day much easier," says Peter.

Wireless communications, text messaging in particular, allowed many their only means to be instantly in touch in this time of crisis. The closeness, the reassurances, the empowerment of information, information they could take comfort in, information they could act on, afforded these and many others their personal victories over the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and during its aftermath. And in this aftermath, we are aware of a great move toward securing wireless communications for everyone.

SIDEBAR
A Personal Two-Way Account
There are probably hundreds of stories like this one, about a husband and wife who persevered through the heart and center of this crisis, connected only by text messaging. This is their story as told to me by Neil Jacobson, CTO of unplugin and husband of Patty:

"I was traveling in California. I was actually getting ready for [a] wireless show in San Diego. I woke up... . The first thing I do is check my e-mail with my BlackBerry. [It was] about 7 o'clock on the morning of Tuesday September 11th... . There was an e-mail from an e-mail address I didn't know. I even looked at the last part, the suffix...and I didn't even recognize the domain. I read it and it said, "I'm safe. I'm with Charlie. We're on the 22nd floor. It looks like the stairwell is clear below. I love you. ­PC.

That's how my wife signs off e-mail. And I'm just thinking to myself, I wonder if somebody's playing some kind of a joke? I'm going to have to call Patty (who I knew would be at work because of New York time). So I was coming out of waking up and thinking about this weird thing and about that same moment there was a bang on my door. And it was my colleague who I was traveling with, the CEO of our company. And he said "Neil, Neil, you've got to come in here!" and he was frantic. And he said, "You know what's happening?" I said, "What, what, what, what?" he says, "Trade Center"... . Then I was running out to follow him into his room. And at that point I was kind of putting two and two together. [The e-mail] was from Patty and something had happened and she was escaping. And as we went into his room, the TV was on and at that time they were showing the image of the burning Trade Center and he was telling me what was happening and I was trying to listen. I just couldn't believe it. He said that he'd been watching and he swears that one of [the buildings] is gone.

So I'm thinking, well, I got an e-mail that [said] she was safe but the e-mail definitely said [that] she was in the building. So I'm checking the time the e-mail went and checking my watch and trying to figure it out. And then they kept talking about the north and south towers. And I had actually worked in the Trade Center and people who know the Trade Center don't talk about north and south. They talk about one and two. And I see one of the towers but for the life of me I can't think...which one is north or south... . And I guess at that point I sent a reply e-mail to that address that [said]...are you safe and [I was] actually in communication [with her]. And things were coming back...not quickly, because I think they were working their way down the building. It was all one and two words, one and two word replies. And [I was] still not sure what was going on... . [I got] a number of things back and forth like that. And I kept thinking, are you out of the building, are you out of the building? And you know I'd just get back, call so and so, call my family. So I was also trying to get through on [the] cell phone and [the] phone and [trying] to tell people that I was in contact. And [I was] watching the time, still trying to line things up about what was happening in what tower. And I think I got an e-mail saying...that she was out of the building at 10:21. Then I was standing in front of the TV and at 10:28 that tower collapsed. Okay, I think she was out of the building but hopefully she wasn't just crushed. And at that point there was another e-mail saying, we're all safe and please contact these people. It was the woman who was sending the e-mails and the other people she was with. And so I knew [Patty] was okay. We definitely couldn't speak to one another. Phones just became worthless. I was making calls from San Diego trying to call Denver, Colorado, on wired lines and couldn't get through. So I guess in the midst of all this while I [was] trying to figure out if she [was] out I was actually telling people that she was okay. I couldn't...piece it all together; all I knew was I was in communication with her. And since the one building was already down I kind of made an assumption that that wasn't her building.

I then had an ordeal getting home [as] many people did. It was only when I came back and I started lining up the e-mails [that] I even found one where the woman with Patty only half answered a question and implied they were out and they were safe. And I know they weren't. That's it; that's what happened. [Then] she actually walked north and called my office that I wasn't at. And the people in my office said you get up here, we'll take care of you. So that was a good hour and a half later. [Without the e-mails] it would have been two hours after that building collapsed [before I knew she was safe]."

More Stories By David Geer

David Geer is a contributing writer to WBT, a journalist, and a computer technician. He graduated from Lake Erie College in 1993 with a BA in psychology and has worked in the computer industry and in the media since 1998.

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