Satellites Stand By High Above The Hot Zone

By | August 1, 2005 | Feature, Government, Telecom

By Peter J. Brown

Exactly when and where the hot zone–the impacted area surrounding the precise spot where a weapon of mass destruction device is unleashed–will suddenly appear is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that first responders–fire, police and emergency medical personnel will be quickly activating their mass casualty incident management systems. In the process, satellite technology will be playing a vital role from the start.

Programs such as the Metropolitan Medical Response System, the multi-state Emergency Management Assistance Compact and the Disaster Management Interoperability Service (DMIS) are intended to ensure that resources flow to the scene and that the ranks of emergency response personnel on site are quickly reinforced. All of these programs are ready to roll with satellite technology.

In the event of a terrorist attack on the United States, emergency response and disaster management traffic will begin to flow. It may start with a noticeable uptick in satellite phone traffic, followed by a series of broadcasts over the Global Broadcast System (GBS) from the U.S. Northern Command headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., via UHF Follow-On satellites. The Defense Satellite Communications System, Milstar and other Department of Defense and commercial satellite assets will be tapped by the Standing Joint Task Force Headquarters-North, responsible for overseeing the response by Northern Command, as it begins issuing commands to units across the country.

National Guard Civil Support Teams, created to assist local emergency commanders in the event of an attack using weapons of mass destruction, will deploy their satellite- equipped communications trucks known as Unified Command Suites and satellite-equipped sports utility vehicles known as Advanced Liaison Vehicles.

Satellite-equipped communications vans known as Infralynx, developed by the U.S. Naval Research Lab and pre-positioned in major cities across the United States will begin to roll. Equipped with the Ku-band Interim Satellite Incident Support Communications System, they will support the operations of a highly trained team known as the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear or High Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package with X-band satellite to provide secure command and control voice and voiceconferencing capabilities all the way up to the White House. Ku-band, VSAT-equipped Mobile Air Transportable Telecommunications Systems and Mobile Emergency Response Systems may also be dispatched to the disaster scene by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In other words, in the event of a major terror attack on the United States, satellites will play a major role in the response, helping to glue the vast multi-agency operation together while helping to sustain continuity of operations on the ground at the local, state and federal level.


In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the Fire Department of New York adopted Internet Protocol (IP)-based satellite technology as part of an intensive wireless communications upgrade. The department deployed Inmarsat Global Area Network terminals and service for video, voice and data connectivity for selected response vehicles and the Fire Department Operations Center and other fixed and mobile command centers. The department also is putting emphasis on live video, installing mast-mounted cameras aboard mobile command posts to provide high-resolution video feeds via the Inmarsat link.

In addition to the Global Area Network, a ground-breaking emergency communications project known as Geospatially-Aware Urban Approaches for Responding to Disasters (GUARD) has been developed. It came to life three years ago and taps into local public broadcaster Thirteen/WNET’s Educational Broadband Service Band, a spectrum licensed to educational institutions, not-for-profit organizations and public broadcasters across the United States, to provide wider bandwidth than conventional emergency response communications systems. GUARD enables the integration of applications such as automatic vehicle location tracking, wireless electronic command boards, video all points bulletins for the New York Police Department and live mobile command and control video and audio monitoring. GUARD continues to evolve, with prototype testing of broadband wireless access technology and mobile capabilities underway.

"We integrated a simple DVB-RCS two-way satellite feed for our final demonstration earlier this year. This allowed an audience in Washington, D.C., to observe our live demonstration interactively as we conducted our drive-thru in [New York City] with two-way wireless broadband," says Stephen Carrol-Cahnmann, director of digital convergence for Thirteen/WNET. "We have not perfected the satellite interconnection aspect of our prototype system, but we plan to do so in the next phases of our work."

The GBS currently does not include a two-way capability, but the requirement probably will be added by the Pentagon, says David Ihrie, CTO at Virginia-based Rosettex Technology and Ventures Group, part of the GUARD team. "The expectation is that the GBS controlling requirement documents will include a two-way capability in their next iteration and the DVB-RCS will likely fill that new mission requirement," he says.

In June, the U.S. National Technology Alliance awarded Rosetex a $3 million contract to transition GUARD to a "nationally relevant regional model" for first responder communications and decision support capability. The GUARD plan calls for extending the enhanced capability with a second interconnected regional solution in St. Louis and a third in Washington, D.C. or Las Vegas.

"Satellite capabilities will be used in two ways for emergency response," Ihrie says. "First, as part of a seamless satellite/fixed base station wireless network, particularly in urban areas like New York where full satellite coverage is problematic and as part of an emergency interconnect between different regional emergency management implementations."

Satellite-based Emergency Health Care Steps Up

Portable satellite-based telemedicine systems could be set up just outside the hot zone to support health care delivery for victims of an attack. "This concept highlights the importance of satellite communications for homeland security purposes," says Mike Mastrangelo who heads Biodefense Communications, a Texas-based consulting firm. He served as Texas Health Alert Network Coordinator until 2003 and was former director of the Bioterrorism Response Support Division at the Texas Department of Health. "The problem that we are trying to address is: How can you possibly provide health care to an event with 100,000 victims? Satellite telemedicine systems would obviate the need to move a large number of physicians near the hot zone."

Responding to a large scale bioterrorism attack may also force responders to alter normal response protocols, Mastrangelo says. "As better response protocols are developed they need to be communicated to the public health and health care communities rapidly. I always referred to this as just-in-time training. Satellite technology is ideal for this delivery."

The First Responder Emergency Communications-Mobile system is an integrated mobile wireless data platform carried in a fully functional ambulance. The system, in use at the Saint Francis University Center of Excellence for Remote and Medically-Under-Served Areas in Pennsylvania, uses KVH Tracnet and Inmarsat solutions to provide live mobile videoconferencing and consultation among other services. The system, funded by the Office of Naval Research and the Naval Health Research Center, provides multiple video feeds from cameras installed in the back of the ambulance, a camera directly over the patient’s head and outside the vehicle to allow for remote visual and voice monitoring of everything going on inside the ambulance as well as at the scene.

"The transmission of patient data, including electrocardiograms, vital signs and full-motion video, reduces the chance of losing contact with the medical command physician," says Vicki Pendleton, telehealth development specialist at the center. "In addition to data transmission, this platform also provides mobile Internet connectivity and conventional two-way audio. The mobile satellite solution works very well even at higher highway speeds. This permits continuous connection, if needed, with the care center during transport of the critically ill or injured patients."

While the two communication systems may have an impact on future emergency medical operations and procedures, there are systems in use today that may also have an impact. In April, the Connecticut Department of Public Health activated its new Medsat redundant voice-only emergency communications network, which has been installed in all of the state’s acute care hospitals as well as at its Emergency Command Center and other sites. The system made its debut in a homeland security exercise.

"Medsat’s anticipated role was to provide the state’s hospitals with drill specific information at regularly scheduled intervals," says Department of Public Health spokesman David Hunt. "Instead, Medsat–an Ottawa-based Mobile Satellite Ventures LP solution–was heavily involved in conveying requests for additional equipment and receiving information from the hospitals about the number of patients arriving, their status and whether they were going through decontamination, being admitted to ICU, etc." The system help public health staff and hospitals perform more than 100 communications during the first day of the drill without any problems, he says.

Mississippi and Kentucky deployed similar satellite-based solutions for their respective departments of health, while emergency management and disaster response officials in states like Washington, Virginia and Georgia also are embracing this approach.

IP Over Satellite Increasingly Attractive

FEMA uses satellite technology routinely for emergency operations, training and a number of other vital missions. While no upgrade is planned for the agency’s five mobile emergency response trucks, FEMA has increased its capability in response to the number of terminals it used during the four hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004, according to a FEMA official.

Among other things, FEMA runs the Disaster Management Interoperability Service network backbone for connecting first responders. The service, which has been demonstrated over Inmarsat and GBS links, allows users to publish information about local disasters on a secure network where first responders can access the data and post feedback. They also have access to maps, weather data and basic collaboration tools such as instant messaging. Connecticut, Florida and Maryland are among the states which already have deployed this system statewide, and the service is a key component in the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Information Network.

"A private satellite network solution is costly due mostly to the equipment," says the FEMA official. "Purchasing the equipment required to both uplink and downlink the signals make this a costly project for back-up emergency use. FEMA has invested in a limited amount of this equipment in the Ku-band satellite range. As in every method of data communications, the amount of bandwidth available is the driving force as to whether a solution is viable for use or not."

The most compelling solution that FEMA has encountered recently is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology. "The ability to employ VoIP technology over a satellite signal is the biggest change in portable solutions. This technology will require the deployment of less equipment for complete communications system requirements," the official says. "The cost of data transmissions over satellite still puts this technology off into the future, however, the technology improvements open the door for new rapid deployment solutions."

Other organizations with responsibility for homeland security share a similar view. "Satellite technology is a critical part of our architecture to enable interoperability and efficient operations," says a Northern Command spokesman. "The efforts within industry to develop smaller aperture antennas, which are more efficient and bring greater bandwidth, will improve our efficiency and effectiveness. This, along with [the use of] IP, both within industry and the [Department of Defense] Transformational Communications Architecture, are critical trends to enhance our operations."

Lot Of Details To Attend To

The security of the U.S. border and ports is a huge concern for the government. The Automatic Identification System, an identification card for vessels, is intended to intercept potentially dangerous cargo. The system, being developed for the U.S. Coast Guard, will rely on satellite-based resources to do its job. In April, the Coast Guard Maritime Domain Awareness Program Integration Office held a meeting with five satellite companies from the United States, Canada and Norway to compare technical approaches and designs regarding the collection of the identification signal from space using commercial satellites. The consensus was that the technical challenges were substantial but surmountable, says Guy Thomas, science and technology advisor for the program integration office.

"The [Coast Guard] is continuing to look at the use of civilian satellites for ocean surveillance," Thomas says. "We are moving out with initial planning to put Automatic Identification System receivers on the Orbcomm replacement constellation now under design." The test satellite for the system is scheduled to be launched in March, he says. The possible use of commercial radar satellites and commercial imaging satellites for ocean surveillance also is under consideration. "We are also looking at near space, with the idea of possibly using high-altitude, long-endurance platforms equipped with passive sensors such as Passive Coherent Location multi-static exploitation technology using reflected energy from satellite downlinks to do ocean surveillance. NASA is looking at the technical aspects of this concept," says Thomas.

On land, state agencies such as the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, keep moving forward, mindful of the importance of satellite-based solutions. California embraced satellite technology long ago and the state is upgrading the 80 sites which make up the its Emergency Digital Information Service.

The systems covered here just scratch the surface of the potential for satellite use in homeland security. A lot of satellite gear is standing by, ready for immediate activation in a hazards response environment. Peter Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia & Homeland Security Editor.

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