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.