Mobile Emergency Operations Vehicle at the State/FEMA Disaster Staging Area is communicating by satellite with the National Operations Center (Source: George Armstrong/FEMA).

Backups for Emergency Satellite Communications

Although once extremely difficult and expensive to operate, satellite technology is now practical for many public, private, and nonprofit organizations. By using VSAT technology, dishes as small as only one meter can provide two-way data connectivity. Satellite-based networks are excellent for remote offices and are cost-competitive with traditional leased lines.  In fact, satellite links can form the basis for a secure, encrypted Virtual Private Network, or VPN. 

By designing satellite-based communications links as backups to an organization’s wide area network, a disaster recovery plan is in place for vital communications to function, even when conventional land-based systems fail. Satellite-based communications can act as backup links to branch locations, for example.

Some entities have deployed smaller versions of their main data center generators – usually equipped with a mobile emergency data center and a variety of other emergency communications equipment – that become the hub for communications during a crisis. This option can create a secure, encrypted, wireless, command-and-control communications zone up to several miles in diameter.

A generic “sat in a box” can be designed for emergency communications, as a self-contained unit, automatically locking on to the satellite by using self-aligning, auto-tracking servomotors controlled by a GPS-fed computer. Vendors can deliver it on-site overnight via airfreight, and it can be operational in an hour or so, ready to support 5-10 wireless laptops complete with Internet access, emails, and VPN connectivity to the system’s main site.

Legitimate Concerns and Possible Closures

Emergency managers and other decision makers are rightly concerned about what would happen to their work, and/or those they have responsibility for, if they lost all of their data because of a system crash, a hacker intrusion, a fire – or, possibly, a theft. In the private sector, when all of a company’s data is lost that company will almost always be offline for at least a few hours; in worst-case situations, of course, the company might be out of business. In fact, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that more than 40 percent of businesses hit by disaster never re-open.

With a data backup system available, important information can be stored offsite – usually at redundant but secure data centers. The most important data would be both compressed and encrypted, ensuring fast backups and greater security. Very user-friendly software is available off the shelf to allow the automatic backup of files and provide the immediate restoration of data.

Interoperability also provides redundancy and sustainability, reduces dependence on a single source, and reflects the vision enunciated for “Project 25” (also called P25 or APCO-25 – which refers to a suite of standards established for communications use by federal, state/province, and local public-safety agencies to enable them to communicate with other agencies, and with mutual-aid response teams, during emergency situations). P25 fills more or less the same role as the protocol, but is not interoperable with it.

Inter-RF SubSystems Interface (ISSI) is a non-proprietary interface that enables RF subsystems (RFSSs) built by different manufacturers to be connected together into wide area networks. The wide area network connections using the ISSI provide an extended coverage area for subscriber units (SUs) that are roaming. The extended-coverage area is important for use by public-safety first responders involved in providing assistance to other jurisdictions during an emergency.

The ISSI supports both the messaging and the procedures needed to enable RFSSs to track and locate SUs, to set up and tear down calls, and to transfer voice information to the SUs. The ISSI uses various standardized protocols to provide the messaging between RFSSs.

ISSI is key for a number of reasons, including the fact that it interconnects with multiple systems, permits a mix of RF subsystems, connects systems operating in different bands, helps interoperability by permitting system-independent dispatch, and allows control to be quickly and easily transferred to another site.

Bandwidth, Backup Systems, and Time Limits

As P25 systems proliferate, roaming, encryption, and even management will require intersystem connectivity, and that requirement will in turn translate into a need for credentialing and specific configurations. Failure will isolate systems and break interoperability – creating situations requiring even more backup and raising the question as to what bandwidth may be required in different scenarios. In fact, VSAT terminals or high-altitude platforms might be required.

In disaster situations, emergency managers and responders usually revert to known minimum-performance capabilities in existing systems, because there is not enough time to test or experiment. In these cases, excessive customization hinders interoperability. The disaster site needs more than two-way communications to manage successfully. More specifically, it also needs:

  • Recognition of broadcast, cellular, and paging services;
  • One-way information dissemination, which is easier both to set up and to meet urgent needs; and
  • The standards and procedures required to tie into an emergency-response system.

In the last several years considerable effort has been expended, and significant progress has been and is being made by the nation’s fire-service, law-enforcement, EMS (emergency medical services), and emergency-management communities, at all levels of government, and by private-sector vendors. The continuation of this outstanding leadership and hard work will be needed for the foreseeable future to build a sustainable emergency communications capability at all times – particularly, though, in times of potentially catastrophic incidents and events of all types.

A Related Note on a Major Step Forward     

In a recent development in this area, the National Communications System (NCS) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it is launching a three-year pilot program that will give key government and industry facilities access to advanced satellite communications during emergencies.  

The new NCS Satellite Priority Service is being provided by Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) of Reston, Va. – through a contract with the Sprint Corporation’s Emergency Response Team to provide interoperable, nationwide push-to-talk radio and satellite phone services that will not be affected by local terrestrial conditions.

MSV is a joint venture between Mobile Satellite Ventures LP (owned by SkyTerra Communications Inc.) and Mobile Satellite Ventures Incorporated of Canada.  

The Satellite Priority Service is being run from the same NCS office that provides the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) for wire-line phones and its cellular equivalent, the Wireless Priority Service (WPS). GETS and WPS provide authorized government and industry users with priority service on commercial networks during emergencies when other resources may be inadequate to meet all of the probable needs that are anticipated. Unlike those programs, which put authorized users at the front of the line for access to commercial service, the Satellite Priority Service will be a “dedicated” program – i.e., it will be available only to authorized users.  

The satellite will act much like a repeater for a traditional radio in push-to-talk mode. The signal is sent from a ground set to one of two MSV satellites in geosynchronous orbit over North America, relaying it to the ground station, where the network: (a) identifies the radio and the talk group being used; (b) looks for other talk group members who are on the air; (c) summons their radios to a common frequency; and (d) sends the signal back up to a satellite and down to the radios of the talk group.  

Satellite phone calls to other MSV users do not go over the Public Switched Telephone Networks (PSTN). Any phone calls made to non-MSV phones are transferred to the traditional phone networks for delivery.  

The ground set is mobile, but not portable. It consists of a 9-inch automatic tracking L-band antenna and a handset, both of which are connected to a transceiver slightly larger than a laptop computer. For those frustrated by previous systems and connectivity problems it seems evident that a new era in emergency communications is becoming a reality.

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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