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.