Reliable communications in unreliable conditions

     It seems every few years or so, emergency response technology is truly pushed to its limits by the destructive forces of nature, often exposing crucial weaknesses in the communication infrastructure. The United States may forever be haunted by the events that took place immediately after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, when nearly every means of communication failed: Cell phones were rendered useless, Internet connections were severed, radio transmissions were hindered, and even satellite phones distributed as backup gear by federal relief workers were unusable. The results were disastrous: Families were left without aid for weeks, as local, regional and national emergency response crews struggled to coordinate relief efforts with faulty or non-existent communications equipment.

     Katrina serves as a powerful reminder that even when we think we have the latest state-of-the-art, infallible equipment in place, it takes only one disaster to prove otherwise. Given the current hostile, unpredictable climate of the earth, the scary truth is it is just a matter of time before our emergency response technology is once again put to the test. What can be done to guarantee reliable communication during an emergency, ensuring the safety of those in need of relief?

     The ideal answer for many emergency response technicians is a versatile communications super-command center: A complete package capable of reliable telephone, fax, computer and Internet service wrapped into one unit able to withstand the rigors a natural disaster would place on it.

     Z5 Technologies, a Washington, DC-based division of Fortified Holdings Corp., and Microsoft collaborated recently to create such a device — the NOMAD Incident Command Platform. Cross-breed a Hummer H2 with a top-of-the-line laptop, add a satellite phone, fax machine, digital printer and broadband Internet access, and you can begin to picture the NOMAD's capabilities and ruggedness. The unit is a shining example of the future of crisis communication equipment for first responders.

     Several components needed to be addressed to design a device capable of meeting the most pressing needs of emergency crews. First, it had to be capable of supporting not just one single user, but a plethora — hundreds — and to do so over a large geographic area.

     "The number one issue facing critical incident responders is the ability to access information and communicate at a time of crisis with geographically dispersed support personnel," says Brendan Reilly, president of Z5 Technologies. "During Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, there was a huge need for fast and reliable wireless or satellite communications that were secure, rugged, portable and reliable. First responders need to be able to manage critical information and communicate, even when infrastructure has been interrupted or no longer exists."

     To address this most pressing obstacle, Z5 Technologies and Microsoft embedded their device with Tactical Access Point (TAP) technology to instantly create a self-healing, ad-hoc mesh network (700Mhz, 2.4Ghz, 4.9Ghz and 5.8Ghz) capable of providing up to 70Mbps of network bandwidth (per link) over vast geographic areas spanning incident specific locations, entire cities and even statewide. They then integrated EVDO/3G Cellular routing capabilities and an embedded Inmarsat BGAN Satellite terminal for redundant network backhaul to give first responders access to real-time communications with crews wherever and whenever they need to — even up 300 miles away.

     Next, the issue of time had to be addressed. During a crisis, every single second matters and can mean the difference between life and death. Mother Nature doesn't give much advance notice on her schedule, so a communications superstation must be able to combine technology and durability with portability, and be deployable to any part of the country in minutes. Despite having military-grade features and ruggedness, the device could not be limited to just military use — it needed to be small enough and light enough to haul in fire trucks or in the back of police cruisers.

     This is ideal, considering local fire and law enforcement are typically the first to arrive on the scene of an emergency.

     "The New York Fire Department is now putting NOMAD TAPs on fire trucks to provide wireless communication," Reilly says. "They're dropping wireless video cameras around burning buildings to provide surveillance. Those wireless cameras then have the ability to be presented to any laptop or smart device on our network, and because we have a backhaul link via cellular or satellite, we can push the video through the network and back to the emergency operations center or critical incident responders located anywhere in the world."

     Power was the next obstacle to overcome. In most disaster zones, electricity is non-existent or scarce at best, and establishing power during the critical first 24 hours of emergency response is of utmost importance. The complete critical response unit needed to be self-sufficient and incorporate the highest level of technology to ensure it would operate when needed. To meet this requirement, Z5 and Microsoft integrated a rechargeable 750 to 850 Watt power supply into each unit. This power supply leverages field replaceable MIL-STD BB-2590/U batteries for up to 24 hours of mission support on a single charge.

     Finally, the unit needed to be tested in the field. All of these technological innovations look great on paper, but are meaningless unless they have been proven to work under real emergency conditions. The NOMAD is currently deployed to every Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) region across the United States, and can be found in Afghanistan, Africa, various regions of the Middle East and even South America. Seven days after the devastating 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in the Sichuan province of China, a NOMAD was shipped to the region to provide continuity of operations for IBM in China. And in 2007, NOMADs were deployed to California to aid in the battle against the blazing wildfires.

     "This state-of-the-art unit is possible because it combines the technological expertise of Fortified DataCom and Microsoft with the operational expertise of first responders who have served in disaster areas," says Steve Cooper, Fortified Holdings Corp. president and whose background as the former Chief Information Officer of both the American Red Cross and the Department of Homeland Security acted as a driving force behind NOMAD's development.

     "When you start with a 20- to 24-hour sustainable power source, layer on networking capabilities, add the option to create a private mobile GSM cellular network then provide backhaul via redundant cellular and satellite links, what you have is a unit that provides command and control software in a remote office," Reilly says. "This allows users the ability to make a phone call, hold a video teleconference, send and receive e-mail, access the Internet, move documents over the network, print, fax, scan and copy — all from one device deployed within 5 minutes by one person anywhere in the world."

     To take a note from the Boy Scouts of America, nothing makes more of an impact in a crisis than preparation. Arriving at the scene of a disaster with the right tools and equipment means crews can begin working immediately and effectively.

     David Anthony Ross is a Minneapolis, Minn.-based freelance writer.