August 6, 2009 By Andy Opsahl
Emergency managers know that having a foolproof disaster communications plan is nothing more than a fantasy. That's because even the most redundant backup strategies can leave responders unable to communicate. Consequently agencies remain focused on providing diversified options for communications.
Why? If a disaster has cut the phone lines, it might not have disabled the radio towers, which would enable responders to rely on land mobile radios (LMR). But what if a disaster paralyzed both telephones and LMRs? Responders who come prepared with other means of communication stand a better chance at continuing their operations.
This is where satellite enters the equation. It's becoming "technological catnip" for some agencies that are seeking that diversity during emergencies. If a hurricane or terrorist attack disabled phone lines and destroyed local radio towers, perhaps responders could still point a dish toward a satellite that's safely orbiting in space.
Recent disasters, especially Hurricane Katrina, have magnified the need for diversified communications. The private sector has stepped up and made products that meet this need, including affordable tools for satellite communication. Federal, state and local responder agencies have deployed several of these devices and applications, and are using them as a partial solution for interoperable communications.
Photo: Federal Emergency Management Agency Mobile Emergency Response Support vehicle/Photo Courtesy of Mark Wolfe/FEMA
Since 9/11, government officials, experts and vendors have led a steady drumbeat of advocacy for interoperable responder communications equipment. An inability of different disciplines and jurisdictions to communicate during emergencies typically gets the blame for inefficient operations. These days, most responder agencies seem to agree on the importance of interoperable equipment, but conflicting opinions between agencies on proper equipment specifications and differing funding cycles tend to slow the process.
In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) devised a relatively simple solution for giving agencies at least limited interoperable communications. Rather than laboring over equipment specifications that all agencies must agree to, the DOJ told SkyTerra Communications, the satellite vendor many agencies already used, to figure out the details.
SkyTerra and the DOJ created the Satellite Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroup (SMART) program, which consists of multistate regions that each have an interoperable "talkgroup" accessible to various responders, like fire services, police, hospitals and others. Each SMART region has one talkgroup that all the different disciplines can use simultaneously. Discipline-specific talkgroups are also provided for incidents that only require certain agencies. The regions comprise neighboring states: For example, Kentucky shares a region with Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. However, some states are in two regional talkgroups -- a southeastern state in a talkgroup might have a Midwest state as a neighbor.
The DOJ knew the primary obstacle to organizing government agencies into talkgroups would be funding-related, so the DOJ negotiated an agreement with SkyTerra to offer free SMART usage to its subscribers. The financial benefit to SkyTerra was obvious: a likely increase in subscribers. But it also gave emergency responders access to interoperable communications for little or no investment.
"That's the nice thing about SMART. If you're an existing customer, you're eligible to participate. You fill out an application that says which pieces of equipment you want it downloaded into and that's it," explained Drew Chandler, communications manager of the Kentucky Department for Public Health.
That downloading process happens quickly too. During a recent Kentucky ice storm, an environmental team from Mississippi downloaded SMART access within two hours, Chandler said.
Though it's easy to participate in the SMART program, it's not a