Satellite: The Backbone For The American Red Cross

By | May 1, 2003 | Feature, Telecom

by James Careless

When disaster strikes anywhere in the United States, the American Red Cross (ARC) springs into action. Within hours, its highly-trained professionals arrive on the scene, coordinating rescue operations via telephone with the ARC’s headquarters in Falls Church, VA.

Unfortunately, the tens and sometimes hundreds of telephone connections required for each rescue operation can eat up a lot of donated cash. This is why the ARC has made the switch to Cisco Voice-over-IP (VoIP) telephony. Compared to conventional long distance, VoIP provides real cost savings to the ARC.

But savings are not enough. To do its job properly, the ARC must be able to reach its rescue teams anywhere. Unfortunately, the disasters that maim and kill people also destroy infrastructure, including terrestrial telephone networks. This is why the ARC began deploying "Linx" mobile earth stations across the country. Based on the Ford Excursion SUV, the Linx allows Red Cross workers to drive to the scene fast, then connect back to the Falls Church headquarters using the SUV’s fold-up 1.2-meter Ku-band dish and onboard satellite earth station.

But this is not all the Linx can do. Designed and built by Bickford Broadcast Vehicles, the Linx can also help police, fire and EMS units with incompatible radios talk to each other, through its onboard JPS Communications ACU-1000 Modular Interconnect System. As well, the Linx can support two-way radio, landline and cellular telephone communications on scene. It can even capture live video and send it back to Falls Church for real-time assessment by top Red Cross staff.

Why The Red Cross Chose The Linx

The genesis of the Bickford-built Linx–ultimately there will be nine distributed nationwide–can be traced back to the ARC’s "Disaster Services Technical Integration Program." Known as the DSTIP, this plan is all about automating communications between ARC rescue teams and Falls Church.

To do so, the ARC purchased 25 flyaway satellite/Cisco VoIP units, says John Perry, the ARC’s manager of telecommunications disaster services. "Whenever a disaster occurs, we send one of these units to the scene," he adds.

Originally, none of these units were to be mounted on wheels. After the subsequent donation of nine Ford SUVs to the ARC, however, "we decided to make as many of them mobile as possible," says Perry.

Although the ARC solicited a number of bids for the Linx, the challenge of mounting an extendable 52′ radio mast on an SUV scared away many vendors. In fact, "Bickford was the only company that would touch the Excursion," Perry says.

"We had been building Linx-type vehicles for TV stations for years," says Bickford President Paul Bickford. "When the Red Cross asked us to build a public safety version for them, we were eager to sit down with them, to figure out what had to be done."

As luck would have it, quite a lot had to be done to make the Linx a reality. Changes included mounting a second roof on the SUV to support the extendable mast, the Ku-band antenna, and an assortment of land mobile radio antennas. Bickford also installed an 8 kW under-the-hood generator in the Excursion’s engine compartment to power all the equipment inside the SUV. These include the ACU-1000, an Advantech 4-watt satellite transmitter, a range of radios, cellphones, a videotape recorder and a remotely-controlled pan-tilt-zoom video camera on the extendable mast.

Ready To Roll

The Red Cross Linx is meant to provide reliable communications, anywhere. This point was proven after September 11th. Even though it was still under construction at Bickford’s Washington, DC, plant when the World Trade Center was attacked, one day later the first Linx was at Ground Zero.

"Bickford’s people worked through the night so that we could send the Linx to help," Perry says. "Once there, we were able to provide 48 phone lines, email and high-speed Internet access at Ground Zero, at a time when conventional cell and landline phones were down. The only thing we lacked was the ACU-1000, which was not fully installed. As a result, communications between incompatible radio systems had to be handled manually."

Since then, Bickford has been manufacturing the Red Cross’ other eight Linx mobiles. As well, the company is also building a Linx for the Maryland State Police. "We’re currently rolling out a statewide radio system as part of the Maryland Incident Management Interoperable Communications System," says Michael Bennett, a retired police lieutenant and now director of the Maryland State Police’s electronics systems division. "This system will make it possible for law enforcement, fire and EMS to communicate with each other, through special computer-controlled cross-band radio connectors such as the ACU-1000."

Linking Red Cross rescuers with headquarters quickly, reliably and affordably is what the Linx is all about, and why satellite communications is so central to this concern. The next time you see disaster footage on the news, look closely for the distinctive red-and-white Linx SUV with its Ku-band antenna pointing skywards. Chances are, you will be seeing it a lot.

James Careless is the Senior Contributing Editor to Via Satellite.

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