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Command and Control: Satellites Standing By

By | December 1, 2002

      By Peter J. Brown

      For the 21st century incident commander, the name of the game is rapid response and complete situational awareness. A new generation of mobile command posts and infrastructure restoration vehicles are standing by–fully loaded with satellite gear –to help rescue and help emergency response personnel achieve total command and control.

      These trucks do more than simply carry communications gear. They open the door to new strategies and tactics. Having interoperable radio communications and the ability to move data and even live video seamlessly between the incident commander, the first responder units and the emergency operations centers are giving today’s emergency commanders significant advantages.

      Take for example a new $1.2 million mobile command post, delivered to the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Fire Department in September. It is equipped with twin Thrane and Thrane Inmarsat M4 satellite systems, as well as a DBS dish, mounted on a KVH Tracvision L3 Mobile unit. Built by The Mattman Co. in San Marcos, CA, this 45-ft. vehicle offers its incident commander much more than fail-safe communications.

      Has, however, the availability of satellite technology dramatically reshaped the way in which incident command at the airport is conducted? “Satellite technology will reshape our approach to incident command. The technology allows for more collaboration on incidents,” says Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Fire Chief Alan Black. “It will also allow for more involvement of subject matter experts and more feedback on performance as the incident progresses.”

      Is the presence of the dual satellite links on this truck compelling this department to change the way it goes about training its command post staff? “We recognized early into design that training was going to be our biggest challenge. This mobile command post will require a complete paradigm shift on so many levels to bring its full potential to bear on an emergency incident,” says Black.

      The Orange County, CA, sheriff’s office purchased two 53-ft. trailers from Illinois-based AK Specialty Vehicles, now part of Prime Medical Services Inc. in Austin, TX. Each of these new trailers–one for command and one for communications–carry four Globalstar satellite phones. In addition, each trailer can be connected to one of several mobile satellite-equipped trailers operated by California’s Office of Emergency Services, known as the Operational Area Satellite Information System, in the event that additional satellite capacity is needed. “We tend to use satellite communications a lot more now. We use the satellite phones to transmit position data as well as voice traffic,” says Captain Steven Riches, who commands the search and rescue team in Orange County.

      The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Authority has contracted with Frontline Communications in Clearwater, FL, for two infrastructure restoration vehicles. One is equipped with two satellite dishes, including a 2.4-meter Vertex satellite antenna, while the other carries a single 1.5-meter Vertex with an AVL positioner. “Pennsylvania is like a lot of other states that are trying to find ways to integrate all these telecommunications and Internet-based technologies into these vehicles,” says Robert King, international sales manager at Frontline. Prime Medical Services also acquired Frontline Communications. “What we are seeing is that all these states are scrambling as they try to define a lot of gray areas about which communications systems will be compatible with local, state and federal emergency management systems.”

      Raytheon assembled a team in Garland, TX, to develop and deploy its satellite-equipped incident response system solution, known as the First Responder. A Suburban SUV is the first chassis selected for this concept, and it is able to pack lots of links in a very small space. While the plan is to offer the First Responder in a larger chassis if a customer requests it, Raytheon is strongly attached to the notion of deploying multiple First Responders linked together via satellite, wireless LANs and radio.

      Dale Craig, Raytheon’s program director for the First Responder project, sees this undertaking as helping to make the incident commander a more efficient leader in what is more likely than not a “dead zone” from the standpoint of communications infrastructure. “Providing communications, including image-sharing, back to a central authority as part of the ongoing assessment and updating process is essential,” says Craig.

      First Responders are just rolling out, and Craig is quite excited by the response thus far. Standard equipment is an Inmarsat M4 link–a VSAT upgrade is in the works–a Globalstar satphone, dual wireless LAN systems and the JPS ACU-1000, which is a software-driven platform that can rapidly mesh multi-frequency radio and cellphone traffic.

      Starting late last April, a team from Boeing Mobile Broadband Solutions (MBS) in Los Angeles embarked on a six week trip across the United States in order to demonstrate their new communications platform for incident management. Using a Suburban SUV towing a trailer, the goal was to let people view an integrated solution that was the result of combined effort by Boeing, IBM and Cisco Systems.

      The nucleus of the MBS Incident Command System consists of a mobile “wireless bubble” in the form of a 2.4 GHz, 802.11 wireless LAN. Incident commanders can punch through this wireless bubble or LAN using any WAN technology, whether it is a satellite link or some other wireless data link.

      “Ku-band satellite, CDMA 2000/GPRS cellular, and 2.4 GHz 802.11 wireless systems form the core WAN/LAN communications element in this offering. I see satellite as a communications insurance policy that lets public safety officials sleep at night,” says Kevin Minds, director of Boeing MBS, who took advantage of the overall flexibility that the trailer/combo-rig provides. “It became apparent to us that by using a trailer, we could quickly establish a dual node infrastructure.”

      Another option is to park the trailer, using it as a fixed satellite node, and then deploy the towing vehicle as a mobile unit that drives in the vicinity of the satellite node, communicating with it via a 20 Mbps to 30 Mbps wireless LAN.

      “Because they will not know the actual condition of the infrastructure until they show up, first responders want a complete toolbox. It is our job to craft a super-set of integrated hardware and software applications, and then let the customer tailor a solution that meets the specific needs of their agency or department,” says Minds.

      What is remarkable about the current generation of vehicles is the broad range of communications gear that can be installed in these trucks. “As we get more ex-military satcom people into these mobile command posts, the process will become more orderly, thanks to a better collective understanding of procedures and protocols,” says Richard Wolf, executive vice president and director of sales and marketing at Wolf Coach in Auburn, MA.

      Wolf Coach built the 32 satellite-equipped Unified Command Suite–Communications Vans for the Special Communications Requirements team at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. These vehicles are used by civil support teams in numerous states as part of their weapons-of-mass-destruction response capabilities. Two mobile satellite uplink vehicles recently were delivered to the Connecticut State Police as well. “Among other things, we are looking closely at the ISat satellite-based frame relay solution as a result. It gives us a data stream out, and does all the handshaking, too,” says Wolf.

      The Connecticut State Police (CTSP) department operates two Wolf Coach-built Powertruck Command Centers, designed to provide remote and/or redundant dispatching for the entire state police force in the event of an emergency situation or dispatch failure, according to Wolf. Each truck is divided into two banks, one with all the terrestrial radio equipment and the other to connect them via satellite. “The trucks have since been used extensively at many large venues, some outside Connecticut for FEMA, where expanded communications and emergency management communications were needed,” says Wolf.

      Sweden-based Swe-Dish Satellite Systems AB is working closely with Ericsson on a trailer-mounted solution called a Mobile Satellite Radio Base Station (RBS). The United Nation’s World Food Program and Telia Mobile deployed a similar system at the start of this year in Kabul, Afghanistan. “We wanted something that the driver of the towing vehicle could set up with very little training,” says Ulf Lindblom, vice president of defense and telecom at Swe-Dish Satellite Systems.

      There are two models available. One is designed to provide remote backhaul capabilities for mobile service, while the other can provide backhaul as well as serve as an autonomous Global System for Mobile (GSM) cell with a built-in autonomous switching system that can set up local calls between cell phone users.

      The 18-meter hydraulic GSM mast takes only a moment to deploy, while the Ku-band satellite antenna atop the trailer is controlled completely by both an auto-positioning and an auto-aligning system. Swe-Dish has its manufacturing facility just a few miles from the Arctic Circle, and for this reason, the ability of the Mobile Satellite RBS to perform in the harshest weather is top notch. “We are constantly looking for ways to make this lighter, smaller and easier to operate,” says Lindblom.

      As the reader can clearly see, much satellite gear is rolling out and the public will benefit greatly in the process. Look for a more comprehensive version of this article online at

      Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia Editor. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.

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