There are very few ways to ensure that emergency communications operate without severe disruptions caused by hurricanes and fire, but the federal government offers low-cost options to keep landlines and wireless channels open to national security and emergency preparedness (NS/EP) personnel. By registering with the National Communications System (NCS), part of the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Cybersecurity and Communications, emergency responders and government leaders can have priority status on congested land and wireless telephone systems during emergencies.

FIRST IN LINE FOR CRITICAL CALLS

The Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) gives priority service to more than 210,000 landline users nationwide that maximizes use of all available telephone lines when networks are jammed. Through the service, emergency personnel receive priority processing in the public telephone network during any disaster or emergency.

By using their GETS calling cards and personal identification numbers, emergency responders receive priority in the public network by having their calls moved to the first available free line. GETS also exempts their calls from network management controls that telephone carriers use to manage congestion.

GETS has been a lifeline in many critical situations. A few years ago, landlines failed Alabama's Emergency Medical Services staff when they tried to reach the Adjutant General's Office in Montgomery after tornadoes ripped though Enterprise, Ala. Using the GETS system, the state emergency operations center in nearby Clanton ensured continuity of operations throughout the crisis.

Late last year, a public safety official from Fauquier County, Va., needed to report that a vehicle had struck a utility pole, disabling power, phone and cable in several areas. Initially unable to reach the local power company to report the outage, he succeeded using his GETS card.

GETS subscribers placed many calls during President Barack Obama's inauguration. Throughout that weekend, authorized users placed more 700 calls to coordinate national security and emergency preparedness operations. More than 99 percent of all GETS calls were completed during the event.

CELL PHONE PRIORITY

The Wireless Priority Service (WPS) is NCS's wireless companion to GETS and gives emergency responders similar priority when the airwaves are congested. WPS, when used in conjunction with GETS, ensures call completion in both the landline and wireless portions of the public telephone network. When landline networks are damaged during an emergency, cell phones often are the primary means of communication, increasing congestion on cellular networks. Using WPS, NS/EP personnel can access the next available wireless radio channel to make calls during an emergency. WPS users simply dial *272 before the number to use the system.

When the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed in 2007, Judson Freed of the Ramsey County Emergency Management and Homeland Security Office in St. Paul, Minn., and his staff had to call the county board members, emergency staff and county officials. “I was able to successfully get through on my cell phone using WPS,” he says.

After the crisis, the county board decided to subscribe to both GETS and WPS for all of its members. “The entire emergency management and homeland security staff already had these services, as did senior county management staff, but never had an occasion to use them,” Freed says. “We were glad that we were prepared when the collapse happened.”

In September 2008, emergency responders along the Gulf Coast used both WPS and GETS after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. “Unlike Hurricane Rita, we were able to maintain emergency communication with key personnel and the local power utility even though the power lines failed,” says John Jones, president of Sandy Hill Water and Sewer in Vernon Parish, La. “With the availability of GETS and WPS, we were able to coordinate with the power utility personnel and had our potable water utility back up and running within two hours, with no service interruption to our customers. This communication ability is a quantum step forward from what we experienced during Hurricane Rita when we were without power for close to a week.”

INSURANCE FOR CRITICAL CIRCUITS

NCS also manages and operates the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP) program, which provides priority provisioning or restoration of NS/EP telecommunications services. When forest fires, hurricanes, terrorist attacks or other crises leave infrastructure severely damaged or destroyed, telecommunications service vendors may become overwhelmed with requests for new services or restoration of existing services.

Because it is difficult to determine for whom or where service should be restored first, the TSP program uses an FCC mandate to prioritize NS/EP requirements for communication service providers, ensuring that designated critical circuits receive attention by the vendor before any non-TSP service. “In the event of a crisis, the TSP program is the only authorized mechanism to enable priority provisioning and restoration of critical circuits,” says Debbie Bea, NCS TSP program manager. Even though federal, state and local government departments and agencies have critical circuits, they will not automatically receive priority treatment unless they have signed up for the service. Under the program rules, service vendors must provision or restore communications services to those organizations or entities that have TSP based on priority.

Today, TSP serves local governments, public safety, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and many other departments and agencies that deal with crises and emergencies as part of their responsibilities. Subscribers pay a one-time average fee of $100 to start the service and approximately $3 per month to maintain it.

To learn more about all of the programs and services offered by NCS, visit www.ncs.gov or call (866) NCS-CALL (627-2255).

Lisa Phillps-Morris is the GETS/WPS outreach coordinator for the NCS Technology and Programs Branch. The NCS is composed of 24 federal departments and agencies responsible for assisting the president, the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the director of the Office of Management and Budget in assuring ongoing NS/EP communications at all times and in every instance.

Getting GETS and WPS

Both priority communications systems — Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) and Wireless Priority Service (WPS) — are available through the National Communications System (NCS). Those who apply for GETS must have met the requirements for emergency telephone services and qualify as part of the national security and emergency preparedness community that directly supports one or more of the following:

  • National security leadership
  • National security posture and population warning
  • Public health, safety, and the maintenance of law and order
  • Public welfare and maintenance of the national economic posture
  • Disaster recovery

Non-NCS members, including state, local and tribal governments, must be sponsored by the NCS or one of its member organizations.

Both GETS and WPS require the organization to identify a point of contact (POC) and alternate who will manage the account(s). If both priority communication systems are used, one POC is preferred.

To request WPS, the organization must identify the POC who will select potential users who meet the eligibility criteria. The NCS will notify the POC of the request's approval or disapproval. If approved, the NCS will coordinate with the POC to activate WPS.

New subscribers can apply for GETS at gets.ncs.gov using the “First Time Requestor” link and following the instructions. To apply for WPS, visit wps.ncs.gov and select “Request WPS.”