Satellite remains critical link for local emergency response

In times of natural or manmade disasters, communication systems can mean the difference between life and death. No one knows this better than state and local governments and its police, fire and county emergency departments. But time and again, local communication infrastructures struggle to meet the immediate needs of its emergency response forces. In fact, one of the first casualties of a disaster often times is the existing infrastructure of cell towers, devices and local operation centers. This scenario played out again when Oklahoma was struck with one of the most damaging tornadoes in American history, devastating the city of Moore.

Crises such as tornadoes or manmade disasters create unique situations for first responders: a sudden, urgent need for a resilient, large-scale communication network for disseminating instructions and status updates to people, as well as coordinating aid and inter-departmental communications.

With ubiquitous coverage, satellite communication networks provide the backbone for rescue and support initiatives during times of crisis and offer first response, medical and emergency teams with full communication capabilities—long before federal assistance arrives.

Over the years, these systems have become increasingly more sophisticated. Satellites offer virtually instant infrastructure in areas where any semblance of 21st century communication technology has been wiped out, or where it never existed in the first place. In terms of independence from terrestrial communication systems, rapid deployment, and virtually global coverage, satellite communications is becoming more and more a part of today’s local recovery plans.

Thankfully, the Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), supports satellite communications. Even before federal services arrive on site, satellite communication terminal equipment such as Inmarsat’s BGAN service, provide immediate voice and data capabilities and extend the FEMA networks when federal aid is linked in. In the days immediately following the Oklahoma tornado event, high bandwidth Ku-band satellite connectivity linked local, state and federal operations providing voice, video and inter-departmental support.

It’s Not Always Mother Nature that is to Blame
When considering natural disasters, however, it is important to keep things in perspective. For every Oklahoma tornado, there are hundreds of utility interruptions that occur. Take for example the 2011 Southwest blackout, sometimes referred to as the Great Blackout of 2011, which was a widespread power outage that affected large areas of Southern California—mainly San Diego—as well as western Arizona and northern Baja California.

Satellite technology was first on the scene. San Diego Gas & Electric rolled out two mobile command centers and three satellite communication systems.  The new equipment had up-to-date technology to help maintain communications when the traditional methods failed helping company officials manage a crisis.  It provided the critical high-speed Internet access, high-definition video and mobile radio local and state officials required to reestablish order to the chaos that left millions in the dark.

Naturally when set in this context, it makes sense to have something like satellite in place that is independent of the terrestrial infrastructure, to maintain command and control in such events. Thankfully, satellite-based solutions offer federal, state and local governments a true alternate path, redundant networking option that ensures that facilities, telecommuters and mobile employees can continue working even if an agency's primary terrestrial network fails. As a result of this reliability, satellites allow public safety officials to communicate their needs and provide information to families, communities, governments and the general public. It is, therefore, critical that first responders have the instant communication infrastructure and ubiquitous coverage that only satellites provide.

Amber Ledgerwood is the director of civil programs for Inmarsat Government.


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