The need for improved communications is widely recognized in the public safety community, but disagreements between agencies about equipment selection and financial issues have impeded the process of change. These challenges make it increasingly difficult for law enforcement and other public safety organizations to coordinate and collaborate on rescue plans, and ultimately slow down response time.
To better serve and protect the public, public safety officials need a communications system that offers priority service, expanded coverage, redundancy and improved interoperability. To meet these needs, government and public safety agencies nationwide are investigating mobile satellite communications.
Unlike land mobile radios and cellular phones, satellite technology resists terrestrial congestion and destruction, making it available in the most rural and mountainous areas, offering the public safety community a reliable and ubiquitous communications infrastructure when needed.
In addition to the redundancy of the satellite, public safety officials have found mobility to be critical — allowing emergency responders to stay in touch from the field and ensuring emergency operations center staff can take their satellite equipment with them if a disaster forces them to evacuate.
San Francisco Bay area
The San Francisco Bay Area is a thriving metropolis consisting of nine counties, 101 cities, 7,000 square miles and a population of nearly 7 million. It is also a region prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, flooding, windstorms, wildfires, mudslides and landslides.
Like many major metropolitan areas, communicating between the various public safety and government agencies located throughout the San Francisco region is challenging. Not only are there numerous public safety and government agencies operating in the region, but they each have their own infrastructure, making it challenging for various agencies to connect during a regional or state emergency.
The Bay Area needed a reliable communications solution that would allow agencies to coordinate public safety and public service efforts during both day-to-day and emergency operations.
Remote Satellite Systems International (RSSI), a reseller for satellite communications technologies, realized the critical need for a redundant communications system that would allow its customers — public safety and government agencies throughout the San Francisco area — to connect with each other when terrestrial and cellular networks are damaged or congested.
Looking to solve this, RSSI began setting up satellite talkgroups using SkyTerra's MSAT-G2 push-to-talk satellite phones.
In 2006, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which has jurisdiction over the nine counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, approached RSSI about establishing a satellite talkgroup that would allow its officials to easily communicate with each other, as well as other agencies operating in the region. The development of the MTC talkgroup ensures that public safety and public service officials in the region have a communications system they can rely upon.
In addition to fixed-site installations — installing antennas on buildings so that the MSAT-G2 equipment can be used indoors — most agencies in the region also purchased MSAT-G2 Go-Kits, which are portable kits that allows users the flexibility of communicating on the go.
Because of RSSI's foresight and initiative, satellite communications has become essential to quick disaster response and coordination of rescue efforts among multiple municipalities and agencies operating in the San Francisco Bay area.
Federal, state, local and tribal agencies are joining and participating in nationwide and regional overlapping Satellite-based Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroups (SMART). Pioneered by the Department of Justice's Wireless Management Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and operating on SkyTerra's satellite communications network, SMART offers one-to-many "broadcast style" push-to-talk communications.
With six nationwide and nine regional talkgroups (each allowing up to 9,999 users) the SMART program lets public safety agents quickly communicate with each other during critical times. In addition to the ability to communicate across multiple public safety agencies, each national SMART talkgroup is designed to serve different public safety communities. For instance, L-SMART is dedicated to serving law enforcement officials, while F-SMART and E-SMART are designed for the fire service and emergency medical services communities, respectively.
In addition, to ensure the public safety community maintains control, the various talkgroups are managed and monitored 24/7 entirely by different federal, state and local public safety entities.
With more than 3,600 users, the SMART program is changing the way law enforcement and other public safety officials are operating, and are proving to be a critical communications tool in an emergency.
Allegany County, Md., like many other parts of North America, is located in a rural, mountainous region where cell phone coverage can be unreliable — a challenging situation for public safety officials who rely on communication for coordinating both day-to-day operations and rescue efforts during an emergency.
During the summer of 2009, a tornado with winds between 90 and 100 mph touched down in Old Town, a community in Allegany County. The tornado knocked down trees and utility poles, further compromising and limiting communications in this rural area.
Following the tornado, public safety professionals from multiple agencies in the county and across the state of Maryland needed a way to communicate with each other in order to coordinate rescue efforts in a timely and efficient manner.
With terrestrial networks destroyed, Allegany County public safety officials turned to satellite technology, dispatching vehicles equipped with MSAT-G2 push-to-talk satellite phones to the affected region. In addition, officials relied on the Mid-Atlantic States Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroup (M-SMART) to communicate with the county 911 and emergency operating centers.
M-SMART was jointly created in 2008 by emergency management divisions of Maryland's Allegany County and West Virginia's Preston and Mineral Counties to enable interoperable communications among emergency responders, public safety officials and community institutes throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Realizing the value of this during a disaster, Allegany County's Emergency Management Division volunteered to manage the talkgroup.
The satellite equipment and M-SMART ensured multi-agency interoperable communications following the tornado, and was critical to the county's timely response.
Like most rural areas, the Allegany County region is likely to face other natural and man-made disasters in the future that will result in damaged or congested terrestrial networks. The satellite equipment helps ensure that the county has a reliable backup communications system available that it can depend on in times of emergency.
The future of satellite communications
Mobile satellite service companies are currently in the process of launching new satellites that will support next-generation higher value-added services. For example, SkyTerra plans to launch two large and powerful satellites in the fall of 2010 and 2011. The new satellites will allow for reliable satellite service on smaller satellite handsets — making carrying a satellite phone in the field easier for the public safety community — and improve communications efficiency. In addition, the satellites will support increased bandwidth and applications that are becoming more important as public safety users in the field come across the need to send data (such as photos and e-mail) back to their home agencies in a timely manner.
Cost-effective programs like SMART, which help connect multiple agencies, as well as advances in technology that are making satellite equipment more user-friendly, will help the adoption of satellite as a key component in all public safety agency communication plans.
Jim Corry is a retired special agent for the U.S. Secret Service. As vice president of customer solutions of SkyTerra Communications, he leads the company's Federal, state and local government business development initiatives and serves as a member of the FCC's Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council where he represents the interests of the satellite industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.