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...


     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.

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