Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 1, 2009

DHS still has more satellite issues to address

Filed under: Cybersecurity,Preparedness and Response,Technology for HLS — by Philip J. Palin on July 1, 2009

 By Peter J. Brown

Besides its recent decision to terminate the National Applications Office (NAO), DHS/FEMA — along with NGA — has several other satellite-related issues that warrant immediate attention.

The first responders we were in touch with recently use satellite communications (satcom) equipment routinely in their assigned missions, and they want DHS to hear their concerns. It is clear that from the standpoint of satcom operations and training, improvements are in order. By the way, we were also in touch with an MIT-trained professional space systems engineer who served as an instructor for a satcom training course attended by a team of first responders as well.

First, DHS has no single point of contact which handles satcom questions for first responders. Or if one exists, it is not well known.

“Yes, I agree that a single point of contact at the Federal level for satcom questions would be of great benefit,” says one tech specialist who supports a rapid response team on the East Coast.

Second, while satcom appears to be a simple and straightforward solution, these first responders report that there are many issues that make satcom not as user-friendly as it could otherwise be.
– High recurring costs restrain or even prevent many first responders from utilizing the equipment.
– Satcom usage fees are increasing — with some service providers — while available bandwidth is being reduced in some instances.
– Teams need to be more highly trained, and more technically proficient in the use of satcom including troubleshooting when higher level satcom activities beyond simple remote Web access are underway. (“I would say that the grasp is getting firmer, but is not as firm as it should be,” says one first responder.) Radio over IP, Voice over IP and video streaming warrant further training.
– Only a finite pool of people tend to have a complete understanding of the entire scope of the communications network end-to-end.
– Many if not all federal agency and DoD satcom systems use firewalls that prohibit first responders from utilizing their systems.
– When NGA makes an effort to provide GIS data to first responders, more often than not, it only supplies low resolution, dated imagery. The ability to access real or near real time imagery is still a major challenge.

The good news is that a terrestrial alternative — Cellular 3G technology — has seen a notable improvement in availability and use over the past year or so.  This includes redundancy – dual carrier service options (AT&T / Sprint) or failover to one if the other is not available in an area. 

Our instructor recommends that response teams should meet with a representative for the service provider(s) to explain specifics of the network, troubleshooting options, etc. Besides providing specific technical resources for troubleshooting in the field, this could greatly assist the team to improve its set up.

By the way, DHS needs to be aware that occasional denials of service due to the high volume of traffic in the aftermath of an emergency are being reported. Perhaps DHS — and the FCC too — needs to sit down with first responders, disaster assistance teams and service providers to establish a WPS or GETS-type high-priority service channel / policy for satcom users.

One first responder reported that he could not get a special category designation, or a “Fair Use Policy” waiver on short notice to override limits on bandwidth usage. This is very restrictive and upsetting for emergency users in particular since a few minutes of video or a bundle of aerial image downloads can quickly exceed the contractual cap in question. Because unexpected service interruptions in the middle of operations can occur for reasons such as unannounced software upgrades too, our instructor thinks it may be useful to develop a guidebook that would walk a team through negotiating their service contracts to avoid similar pitfalls.

Otherwise, one first responder points out that DHS, FEMA and NGA also need to do a better job of addressing the satcom “culture gap” or what is simply the fact that in the field, federal agency employees and local first responders have completely different needs.

“We just need basic information in a one or two shift operation, and we need to have the complete response quickly in the first request cycle, and not after 3 requests have been made and 36 hours have passed,” says one first responder.
While first responders are well versed in IP and even IPv6, cybersecurity is not a top priority. In fact, our instructor reports that in one 6-hour session, “I don’t recall cybersecurity ever being brought up; rather, the team seemed mostly concerned about physical trailer security. In other words, they didn’t want people to enter their trailer and steal their equipment.”

DHS might find this observation troubling.

Finally, with this year’s “Amateur Radio Week” drawing to a close this past weekend, this satellite guy want to salute all the members of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) who contribute so much of their time as volunteer communications personnel in emergency situations large and small. These people ensure that vital ham radio services are available on short notice whenever needed. They are truly the finest kind of first responders.

Peter J. Brown is a frequent contributor to HLSWatch. For years, he has written about emergency communications, interoperability and the increasing use of satellite technology in the homeland security and disaster response sectors for several publications.
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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 1, 2009 @ 10:51 am

Great post Peter and thanks. Is ARRL related to RACES?
I stumbled on a report that I would like to send to you if you will e-mail me at vacationlanegrp@aol.com!
The report/study you may have or may not but your post reminded me that I needed more info on the subject of your post and would like to know if other analysis exists virtually. Unfortunately, while I do have a virtual copy of the report I will send have no idea if there is an URL for it. Thanks in advance and who knows may prompt a further post from you which I always enjoy as Phil drifts off to the exotica of the EAST! Just joking Phil!

Comment by Art Botterell

July 1, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

Complicating things further may be a bit of sibling rivalry between FEMA’s response-technology folks and the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. Plus we have the National Communications System, home of the GETS and WPS programs, formerly in the Army but now also under the DHS roof. And that’s before we even get to other federal agencies.

In 2006 a study group of the Computer Science and Technology Board of the National Academies of Science looked at the problem of integrating high tech into disaster response.

Frequently, we found, useful new technologies get pushed into disaster responses only to be pushed back by a manager who don’t know how to use with them and don’t have time just then to figure it out.

One of the things we identified was the need for a cadre of “geeks with boots” who could help front-line responders integrate available new technologies into their work.

Hams frequently help with that, but many of them are still relatively narrow in their technical skills… it is, after all, just a hobby for most of them. The current state of technology appears to demand a higher level of sophistication both in terms of technology and of emergency management.

Comment by Art Botterell

July 1, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

[That should have read “by managers who don’t…” etc.]

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 1, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

I certainly do not want to suggest that such communication technology cannot be, or should not be, part of the first responder tool kit.

But just because it exists, I do not think is reason enough to argue, “First, DHS has no single point of contact which handles satcom questions for first responders.”

Why should it? Should DHS have a single point of reference for every possible major issue regarding first responders? In our federalized society, where does the local/state responsibility end and the federal begin? And if the feds provide such funding or guidance, how much direct direction will local first responders take?

I do not want to deny first responders this capability. But I do want to point out that for every topic/tool/threat there is a constituency that would like a “federal belly button” to call upon for guidance, research, and most importantly funding.

Unlike the UK, Israel, and other often sited examples of democratic societies that have been afflicted with terrorism for years, first responders in the U.S. are not part of a national system.

So at what point does the federal government draw the line?

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 2, 2009 @ 3:07 am

Actually I think Arnold’s point hits home. My solution would be that in failing to redefine federalism and really analyze who or what level can do what the best we just in the meantime adopt a flat percentage contribution to personnel, training, exercising, equipping etc. a fixed percentage federal share for the 300 largest muncipalities. I know I know. The terrorist may hit in one of the 350 US counties with declining population but hey let’s be willing to sacrifice the few for the many. I understand the Buffalo land expand about 100 miles in every direction each year. Too bad about that lack of rainfall.

Comment by Peter J. Brown

July 2, 2009 @ 7:12 am

An important part of the whole satcom exercise here is the notion that in its role as a redundant emergency communications link in a disaster response scenario where comms infrastructure is badly damaged if not wiped out entirely, a common or shared approach to satcom operations ties into the broader effort to implement EMAC, ICS, NIMS, NRF etc. In other words, the emphasis over the past several years has been to try and glue everyone to the same page, producing an acceptable degree of uniformity in training, implementation of emergency response plans, and ultimately response. Are we there yet? No, but there has been progress despite GAO’s recent mention of the problem we are having with respect to disseminating “lessons learned” in a timely fashion after disasters and after major exercises — this applies to comms too. That is why having a single point of contact at DHS is a good idea. It also allows DHS to have a better grasp of any unresolved satcom issues in the field, things that would otherwise be left unreported. I see no sign of this sort of forum where problems in the field such as the above-mentioned service interruptions etc are reported today and possibly resolved — post disaster. Perhaps the FCC might be helpful here.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 3, 2009 @ 3:58 am

New report out on EMP effects on telecommunications by Commission studying impacts. Sent to Chris and Phil.

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July 6, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

[…] DHS still has more satellite issues to address – Homeland Security Watch […]

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