Professors develop model to strengthen wireless networks for natural disasters

Bartolacci works to create important tool for enhanced cyber security
Michael R. Bartolacci

Michael R. Bartolacci works to create important tool for enhanced cyber security.

Credit: Penn State

READING, Pa. — Protecting and strengthening the security of wireless networks used by law enforcement, firefighters and emergency responders during natural disasters and minimizing damage to networks by terrorists and hackers — these are the two key issues addressed in a unique modeling approach developed by two professors, one from Penn State Berks and the other from Ontario’s University of Waterloo.

Referred to in cyber security as “network hardening,” the model was created by Michael R. Bartolacci, professor of information sciences and technology at Penn State Berks, and Stanko Dimitrov, associate professor of management sciences at the University of Waterloo.

Their research is part of a growing trend to discover methods to best design an emergency response plan in the wake of natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that recently hit major U.S. cities including Houston, Miami and New Orleans, and the California wildfires.

Bartolacci said their work responds to a demand for an algorithmic method to evaluate and fortify existing emergency response plans to be resilient to additional stressors after a natural disaster. “We generate a mathematical model of an existing network and use existing system costs and capacities to design a new network architecture plan that deals with future disturbances, assuming worst-case scenarios,” he said.

Dimitrov explained, “Our vision is to help municipalities prepare their wireless telecommunication systems for not only natural disasters such that they may quickly respond after an event, but also to be prepared to face a secondary disaster, or even a terrorist attack immediately after the initial event.”

“We are also anticipating what really hasn’t been addressed — the damage that could be done by hackers and terrorists who want to create further chaos during a disaster or attack a network for other reasons, for example, taking down a cell tower,” Bartolacci added.

The pair has published a paper, “Promoting Resiliency in Emergency Communication Networks: A Network Interdiction Stylized Initial Case Study Model of a Miami-Dade County (Florida) Network,” that appears in the International Journal of Information for Crisis Response and Management.

Bartolacci said their initial work focuses on a case study area: The Miami-Dade County’s (Florida) sheriff department’s wireless network, concentrating primarily on the number of daily emergency calls to various sheriff stations throughout the county, and then employing game theory by optimizing differing combinations of financial resources for attackers and defenders.

Dimitrov explained that for Dade County’s wireless network, their model showed there was a point where the number of potential incidents leveled off and spending beyond that was not cost-effective. “Using our model, communities can stretch tight budgets and still harden their networks," he said.

Inspired by his own experience with the destructive Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Bartolacci stated, “Even though I was far away from the damage, living in Bethlehem, we still lost power and use of our cell phones. If our area had more generators associated with cell towers within the local cellular network, our wireless service may not have been disrupted.”

Bartolacci’s research exemplifies the high level of work being done by Penn State Berks faculty in many areas including information technology, engineering, science, medicine and agriculture, according to Paul Esqueda, senior associate dean for academic affairs and professor of engineering.

For more information, contact Bartolacci at [email protected] or Dimitrov at [email protected].