Hurricane Season Begins Thursday; Are Emergency Communications Ready?

By | May 29, 2006 | Broadcasting, Telecom

From June through November, residents along the Southeast and Gulf Coast regions of the United States brace for nature’s furry. Government officials already predict that the 2006 hurricane season is on track to be as active as last year’s, creating fear and uncertainty among many that would not want a Katrina devastation repeat that left little satellite-enabled infrastructures in place.

The National Hurricane Center is predicting 13 to 16 named storms, with eight to 10 of those becoming hurricanes and four to six of those being major, Category 3 or above. In preparation for the upcoming hurricane season, satellite service providers have been proactively working with Federal, State and local authorities across the United States to ensure history does not repeat itself.

Now, cell phone companies, broadband providers and emergency personnel have hardened their Gulf Coast communication networks — adding extra antenna bracing, strapping down wires, incorporating satellite technology and strategically placing wheeled cell sites with satellite backhaul capabilities. Cingular Wireless, for example, will use sport utility vehicles equipped with satellite call systems during future disasters such as a hurricane. The equipment is part of the company’s $60 million emergency preparedness program.

Brunswick County officials have also taken precautions so that residents of southeastern North Carolina do not find themselves in the same position as the Gulf Coast residents during this hurricane season. The mobile communications response system is established via a constant satellite connection. The system includes a 0.96-meter satellite dish, a communications control box, a wireless radio node, tripod and camera and wireless Internet cell phones.

During the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, mobile satellite service providers deployed in excess of 13,000 satellite units into the affected U.S. Gulf coast region. The industry also systematically prepared and implemented significant adjustments to various communication networks, setting up phone banks, assisting with telemedicine facilities and reestablishing Internet connectivity during and after the hurricane.

The satellite industry now has become a squeaky wheel, urging policy-makers to include more satellite-enabled technology within national and local communications infrastructures. All major FSS, MSS and equipment suppliers have provided vulnerable communities with satellite services, and it looks as if the U.S. government has recognized space-based technology as a vital piece of successful emergency response.

A memorandum from the Assistant Secretary of Defense has been released stating the U.S. Department of Defense has amended its policy regarding the procurement of satellite communications equipment. This amendment now provides government agencies with the freedom and capability to purchase satellite voice and data products for various unclassified government applications based in the continental United States.

Globalstar, Hughes, Iridium, Panamsat, SES and Intelsat, as well as others, have been urging the U.S. government to optimize the availability of portable satellite voice and data services to strategic and administrative organizations, especially those responsible for providing support in the aftermath of national emergencies within the United States. One of the main issues that arose was that satellite industry personnel were not authorized to sell satellite communications products and services to the Pentagon outside of established government channels. Also, companies not cleared as emergency assistants and could not gain access to disaster zones.

Under this new policy, such issues have been reduced. This decision now grants satellite service providers the opportunity to support the Department of Defense and its various agencies and provide them with communications solutions for emergency situations.

David Paulison, acting director of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in a national press conference last week he is making sure the federal government is prepared by purchasing more satellite communications equipment, developing protocols for communicating with state and local governments, and pre-staging more people and supplies.

Time, however, will tell how successful these recent actions by national, state and local officials will be in maintaining communications during emergency situations.

–Nick Mitsis

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