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Satellite Technology Provides Disaster Communications When Cell Towers Fail

Satellite communication includes unmanned aerial vehicles and satellite images.

by Andy Opsahl / July 27, 2009
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Mobile Emergency Response Support vehicle uses satellite communications to stay connected during a disaster. Mark Wolfe/FEMA

Emergency managers know that having a foolproof disaster communications plan is nothing more than a fantasy. That's because even the most redundant backup strategies can leave responders unable to communicate. Consequently agencies remain focused on providing diversified options for communications.


Why? If a disaster has cut the phone lines, it might not have disabled the radio towers, which would enable responders to rely on land mobile radios (LMR). But what if a disaster paralyzed both telephones and LMRs? Responders who come prepared with other means of communication stand a better chance at continuing their operations.


This is where satellite enters the equation. It's becoming "technological catnip" for some agencies that are seeking that diversity during emergencies. If a hurricane or terrorist attack disabled phone lines and destroyed local radio towers, perhaps responders could still point a dish toward a satellite that's safely orbiting in space.


Recent disasters, especially Hurricane Katrina, have magnified the need for diversified communications. The private sector has stepped up and made products that meet this need, including affordable tools for satellite communication. Federal, state and local responder agencies have deployed several of these devices and applications, and are using them as a partial solution for interoperable communications.


Photo: Federal Emergency Management Agency Mobile Emergency Response Support vehicle/Photo Courtesy of Mark Wolfe/FEMA


The SMART Route


Since 9/11, government officials, experts and vendors have led a steady drumbeat of advocacy for interoperable responder communications equipment. An inability of different disciplines and jurisdictions to communicate during emergencies typically gets the blame for inefficient operations. These days, most responder agencies seem to agree on the importance of interoperable equipment, but conflicting opinions between agencies on proper equipment specifications and differing funding cycles tend to slow the process.


In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) devised a relatively simple solution for giving agencies at least limited interoperable communications. Rather than laboring over equipment specifications that all agencies must agree to, the DOJ told SkyTerra Communications, the satellite vendor many agencies already used, to figure out the details.


SkyTerra and the DOJ created the Satellite Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroup (SMART) program, which consists of multistate regions that each have an interoperable "talkgroup" accessible to various responders, like fire services, police, hospitals and others. Each SMART region has one talkgroup that all the different disciplines can use simultaneously. Discipline-specific talkgroups are also provided for incidents that only require certain agencies. The regions comprise neighboring states: For example, Kentucky shares a region with Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. However, some states are in two regional talkgroups -- a southeastern state in a talkgroup might have a Midwest state as a neighbor.


The DOJ knew the primary obstacle to organizing government agencies into talkgroups would be funding-related, so the DOJ negotiated an agreement with SkyTerra to offer free SMART usage to its subscribers. The financial benefit to SkyTerra was obvious: a likely increase in subscribers. But it also gave emergency responders access to interoperable communications for little or no investment.


"That's the nice thing about SMART. If you're an existing customer, you're eligible to participate. You fill out an application that says which pieces of equipment you want it downloaded into and that's it," explained Drew Chandler, communications manager of the Kentucky Department for Public Health.


That downloading process happens quickly too. During a recent Kentucky ice storm, an environmental team from Mississippi downloaded SMART access within two hours, Chandler said.


Though it's easy to participate in the SMART program, it's not a comprehensive answer to interoperable communications because agencies only have purchased a limited number of handheld devices for satellite communications. Giving all responders satellite devices would be too expensive, said Chandler. In Kentucky, 350 SkyTerra devices are used by various state and local responders. The monthly subscription cost is roughly $70 per unit. Their functionality is worth the expense, he said.


"That's like paying another cell phone bill for a lifeline," said Chandler.


The Gadgets


The market activity that's making satellite an affordable failover strategy also has produced many satellite-related applications. Among the most critical is technology that lets responders transmit satellite images of an incident to a command center for processing on high-performance computers, said Eric Frost, co-director of the San Diego State University Immersive Visualization Center.


Here's how it works: Responders send an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to the emergency site they need to survey. The UAV then sends video and hundreds of photos back to the command center. Frost's team does the image processing from the San Diego area. Access to high-performance computers gives responders on the ground a view of terrain that's difficult to see with the naked eye. For example, if someone wearing blue clothes got lost in a vast, wooded area, Frost's team could use software to isolate instances of the color. It would stand out in the altered image. "It's like seeing a red spaghetti dot on a white shirt," Frost said.


Another satellite technology allows those images to travel faster than what's otherwise possible via satellite's limited bandwidth. High-resolution photos and videos are large files that usually clog a satellite's bandwidth. To alleviate the problem, many responders now use software from GeoFusion, which breaks up the files into chunks so that only the content immediately on a responder's screen travels from the command center to that responder. Once the responder needs a different piece of content, the new content then travels from the command center to the responder's computer. This process ensures that responders get content faster because smaller files travel through the satellite.


Increased speed is a benefit many new satellite technologies share, according to Craig "Gator" Gallagher, IT specialist of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


Photo: San Diego firefighters like satellite's ability to offer cell phone communication in backcountry areas that lack cell tower coverage./Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA


"Most satellite systems are so automated these days that it only takes pressing a couple buttons to turn them on and, with the aid of built-in GPS, the system finds the satellite, locks on it and is ready to pass information in a matter of only minutes," Gallagher said via e-mail.


One feature becoming popular with San Diego firefighters is satellite's ability to offer cell phone communication in backcountry areas that lack cell tower coverage. The phone connectivity reaches cell phones by using a broadband global area network, which delivers satellite-powered broadband using a portable terminal the size of a laptop. Communicating requires no special training because everyone knows how to operate a cell phone.


An especially affordable satellite technology that's improving emergency management, Frost said, is Spot Satellite Messenger, a small device the San Diego Fire Rescue Department uses to track firefighters and trucks in the field. The retail price is a little more than $100 per unit, plus a $100 annual service fee. Using the device, location updates are provided every 15 minutes, which lets command centers track the locations of trucks and individual firefighters.


Photo: Spot Satellite Personal Tracker


Frost said having precise, updatable location data is important.


"If you're at a command center trying to manage what's going on, the reality is you're not really managing it. You're just sort of keeping track of it because you don't actually know where most of your people are," Frost said. "If the fire is coming up over one ridge and you have people on the other ridge, you often don't know that and they don't know that because you don't know where the people actually are."


Downside of Satellite


Satellite, however, has its vulnerabilities. Chandler said the technology becomes useless when responders lose line of sight, which can happen during a hurricane or windstorm.


"Maybe your dish gets blown over. It's a very directional signal, and if you blow the dish and twist it several degrees, it's not looking at the satellite, it's just looking out into space," Chandler said. "We've had that happen frequently here in Kentucky in the western part of the state. There aren't a lot of mountains or anything to cut up some of that wind so we get straight line winds."



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