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Space and Homeland Security A New Strategic Partnership

By | July 1, 2002

      By Peter J. Brown

      The United States is preparing to cope with a wide range of threats on its soil, including bioterrorism and the possible use of nuclear weaponry. Now, more than ever, satellite technology is an important element in this nation’s domestic defense and its various emergency response systems.

      Via Satellite interviewed emergency communications coordinators in several states, as well as officials in both the Office of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), where satellite is a key component of its comprehensive consequence management strategy. The recent appointment of Eric Tolvert as deputy director of the FEMA Office of National Preparedness, for example, might set the stage for a broader implementation of satellite solutions. Tolvert brings considerable field experience from his prior posts as former director of the North Carolina Emergency Management Division, and former preparedness and response bureau chief with the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

      When everything else is collapsed or fragmented on the scene, satellite can quickly rise to the occasion, reinforcing and enhancing any incident command structure. FEMA has known this for years.

      “We are big users of satellite,” says Gordon Fullerton, director of FEMA’s systems engineering development division. “When the circuits at our regional office in New York City were knocked out on September 11, for example, we immediately activated our Ku-band and MSAT satellite systems. We were able to get that office up and running the following day.”

      FEMA has a fleet of large truck trailers known as the Mobile Airborne Transportable Telecom Systems (MATTS), as well as smaller Mobile Emergency Response Systems (MERS). Both are VSAT-equipped. FEMA also routinely uses handheld devices linked to Orbcomm in order to update assignments for FEMA personnel in the field. In the future, FEMA expects to tap lower cost Ka-band terminals for a variety of purposes, according to Fullerton.

      Given what satellites can do in times of dire need, several large states have sophisticated satellite infrastructures at their disposal. At the Florida Division of Emergency Management (DEM), the Emergency Satellite Communications System (ESATCOM) consists of 109 remote terminals statewide for high-speed data, voice, Internet access and e-mail between the Emergency Operations Center and any remote site. Remote terminals are available in several mobile command posts and on three dedicated trailers to permit communications directly from affected areas.

      “Any remote site can contact the State Emergency Operations Center (EOC), via voice or a special e-mail system, to request assistance, provide emergency information and offer emergency assistance,” says John Fleming, communications and warnings director. “Remote sites can access the division’s database to originate, edit, review or conduct status checks on any entry. Any remote site can participate in a one-way video broadcast or two-way videoconference, and can access up to 48 telephone lines if their local system has failed.”

      ESATCOM is used not only in day-to-day operations. It also serves as a backbone to activate any or all of the States’ radio and television stations with emergency information. The EOC also processes severe weather information from NOAA/NWS satellites, and from private firms for analysis and evaluation. All weather watch and warning conditions are relayed to the appropriate counties via satellite, according to Fleming.

      In California, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) has access to 68 remote sites, two hubs and five transportables known as Operational Area Satellite Information System (OASIS) trailers. Caltrans has three additional OASIS trailers, according to Richard Osborne of the OES Tele- communications Section.

      “The biggest challenge so far is getting people so familiar with the satellite network that using it becomes second nature,” says Don Root, chief of the OES Telecommunications Section. “Like any technology, if you’ve been trained to use it, but never needed to, you are less likely to remember how, especially in an emergency when tensions are high.”

      OES provides the public with emergency information via an Emergency Digital Information Service (EDIS). OASIS serves as its backbone delivery system to all counties in California. OES uses 1.2-meter VSATs so that local emergency managers can direct emergency newswire feeds to local broadcasters.

      “The EDIS bulletins are a supplement to the Emergency Alert System (EAS) in California,” says Ben Green, assistant chief for EAS/EDIS Programs at OES Telecommunications. “In addition to the OASIS, we started using the Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) sat phones for all our field coordinators. They afford us the flexibility to communicate anywhere in North America back to our State Warning Center in Sacramento using either the custom ‘talk groups’ on PTT or cellular-like telephony.”

      Pennsylvania is yet another state where satellite plays a key role. With its uplink vehicle built by Frontline Communications, for example, a plane flying overhead can feed live video down to the truck, which can then uplink that same signal via satellite back directly to the governor of Pennsylvania and his emergency management team miles away.

      As for the 40-plus federal agencies that come under the oversight umbrella of the Office of Homeland Security (OHS), the list of satellite assets is enormous. This includes the domestic satellite resources of the Defense Department (DoD) via the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and assets now in place under the recently formed Northern Command. At the state level, there are Civilian Support Teams (CST’s) which are now in 32 states, various Army National Guard units, Combat Communications Squadrons in the Air National Guard and others.

      They all have considerable satellite resources at their disposal including UHF SATCOM (TACSAT/UNET), and Ground Mobile Forces Satellite Radio, which can provide both secure and open phone links as well as access to NIPRNET (Open Internet) and SIPRNET (Secure Internet), and multiple radio band and combat net radio interfaces.

      How exactly these military units will mesh with their civilian counterparts, as well as how the different civilian agencies will mesh together in a seamless fashion, is still being resolved.

      “Interoperability is a key issue. We have not looked at this very deeply, but post World Trade Center, it is clear that we want to fix it fast within the local environment, starting with local police and fire departments,” according to an OHS official. “Thus far, we have not seen a large value add for some sort of single homogenous network. We are leaving it up to the local decision-makers.”

      Because the OHS block grants to states have few strings attached, it is possible that states might use the funds to purchase satellite equipment, but this same OHS official was unaware of any specific state doing so thus far.

      Where exactly is OHS heading when it comes to communications oversight and any coordination of satellite communications? This remains to be seen. The language, however, in its most recent budget signals that the White House wants FEMA to quickly streamline and simplify any and all resource acquisition procedures for the states. Making interoperable communications gear available–including satellite gear–appears to be a high priority.

      Limited state budgets in many instances simply do not allow for any widepsread implementation of satellite technology. Will the threat of bioterrorism and nuclear devices alter this situation? Will an Office of Emergency Satellite Communications be created? Or will the existing set of plans overseen as part of the National Communications System (NCS) suffice?

      If the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Commission (NSTAC) is formulating anything resembling a satellite specific agenda, we have yet to detect it. A lot of arrows are pointing in the direction of a more integrated approach to emergency satcom. Avoiding any unnecessary and burdensome expansion of infrastructure is a priority as well. The real objective is meeting the critical communications needs of the end users, whether we are talking about first responders, emergency management coordinators or the general public.

      Emergency satcom is not an exotic solution. It should be available for instantaneous use in every state.

      Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia Editor.

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