When a major disaster knocks out radio and mobile phone antenna sites and landline networks, first responders are left with few communications options. Sometimes it takes weeks to get land-based networks back on line. When that happens, workers managing response-and-recovery efforts — who need to make phones calls, send e-mails or tap into databases at agency headquarters — often find themselves at a complete loss.

If the infrastructure takes a massive hit, one way to put those workers in touch with the outside world is to bring in a mobile satellite communications system. Members of the Satellite Industry Association have been promoting this solution in a recent publication, the “First Responder's Guide to Satellite Communications” (available at http://sia.org/frg.htm).

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) certainly has received the message. Since Hurricane Katrina, the agency has been building a fleet of light vehicles equipped with satellite communications systems that offer IP-based telephone, fax, data and video communications. FEMA recently placed an order for 25 more of these systems, adding to the 70 it deployed over the past two years.

OnCall Communications serves as systems integrator for FEMA's satellite communications system, called OnSPOT. Meanwhile, IntelSat provides the satellite link, network management services and Internet connectivity, while UDCast provides software to manage the quality and security of transmissions over the IP network.

FEMA used the first 70 units to support its Mobile Disaster Recovery Centers — mobile offices for FEMA workers in the field — and its Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) units, used to lend communications, information processing and logistical support to agencies on the scene.

“Through the MERS, they can provide communication services to local communities, law enforcement, state government or other agencies that may be trying to coordinate relief efforts and don't have communications,” said Erin Ludden, director of marketing for OnCall Communications.

The latest 25 OnSPOT units will go to FEMA's regional offices and its Federal Incident Response Support Teams, which assist state and local responders during major incidents.

FEMA's OnSPOT system includes two satellite antennas — measuring 1.2 meters and 96 centimeters — mounted on a light vehicle, along with the hardware needed to establish telephone, fax, video and data transmission capabilities. The user needs to press only one button to get the system up and running, Ludden said. “It automatically finds the satellite, locks on and logs into IntelSat's IP-based QuickSPOT network.”

The system “allows FEMA direct access into their internal network via satellite,” with data rates as high as 4.5 Mb/s, said Alex Flores, analyst of network services product marketing for IntelSat. Users in the field can operate on the network just as though they were sitting in their offices, he said.

Data transmitted from the field travels via satellite to IntelSat's communications hub in Ellenwood, Ga., and then over a fiber network “back to FEMA's headquarters location, or wherever they have established it needs to go,” Ludden said.

While the system and fiber network give users the same communications access they would have in their offices, UDCast's UDGateway provides those transmissions with similar levels of quality and security. “What we provide is primarily software, which deals with the communications protocols and does the enhancements to those protocols to make the communications secure and high performance,” said Hubert Zimmermann, UDCast's CEO.

Along with encrypting its own communications, FEMA wanted to make sure that when it set up communications facilities for the public — for instance, an Internet café where evacuees can apply online for assistance — it could segregate those transmissions from its own.

“The primary concern of FEMA was the intermingling of public Internet traffic with their secure traffic, and whether the security of their traffic would be compromised,” Ludden said.

The OnSPOT system is mobile in the sense that users can take it from place to place and set it up quickly. Recently, though, OnCall, IntelSat and UDCast have been working on a version that brings mobility to the next level. “We're trialing and evaluating on-the-move technology, where we can have stabilized antennas on vehicles,” Flores said. “So when they're en route to a particular location, they can continue to have their data come while they're in motion.”

Of course, as the SIA publication illustrates, OnCall, IntelSat and UDCast are not the only companies marketing satellite communications packages to fill in for damaged terrestrial infrastructure.

“We used very similar devices in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” said Chris Drake, a principal at the wireless communications consulting firm Logistix and formerly the operation manager for the city of New Orleans' emergency operations center (EOC). Drake helped design and develop many of the New Orleans government's communications systems and, after Katrina, oversaw the deployment of a Wi-Fi network that serves the city's downtown, as well as other communications facilities.

Like OnSpot, other packages on the market support voice-over-IP (VoIP) and data communications and lock onto a satellite feed with the push of a button, Drake said. New Orleans used a product from Unisys. “Immediately post-Katrina, Unisys just happened to have feet on the ground and units in place,” Drake said. “But there are others available.”

In Polk County, Fla., emergency personnel use several satellite-based products, including Iridium satellite phones and a unit that employs broadband global area network (BGAN) technology developed by satellite carrier Inmarsat, said Ben Holycross, radio systems manager with the county's department of public safety.

Both packages are useful when department personnel lend a hand in other jurisdictions, Holycross said. The Iridium phones provide voice communications, while the BGAN unit “gives you the ability, in a very small package, to do anything you need to do over the Internet, to do VoIP with a VoIP phone and to be able to plug in a Webcam and send back some video,” he said. This package, though, can support only one to three users at a time.

When emergency managers in Fort Bend County, Texas, needed a satellite system to back up their land-based communications, they chose the SatMAX emergency communications system from Eagle Broadband, which offers both voice and data communications. This package, which uses the Iridium satellite network, will provide communications for the county's EOC should terrestrial networks go down.

The EOC can use the SatMAX system indoors because it includes wireless hot spots to relay communications between multiple users and leverages two outdoor antennas with a view of the satellites. “This allows you to be indoors and still have that ground-to-satellite transmission,” said Nate Davis, planning coordinator at the county's office of emergency management.

SatMAX also can provide communications in the field. “If we had to become mobile, we could just shut down the box, unplug our cords, take it with us and set it up anywhere else we need to set up,” Davis said. “It gives us the convenience if we need to set up an alternative emergency operations center or if we even need to coordinate with another county or region, due to a major disaster.”

Whatever satellite system an agency picks, users should remember that they aren't the cure for all emergency communications woes. “In the best case scenario, they simply tide an area over until a more permanent solution can be installed,” Drake said.

And because agencies use these systems only rarely, they may run into problems when they bring them out of storage, he added. Batteries run down, and personnel who came on board since the last emergency might not be trained on the equipment. “One of our mantras now,” Drake said, “is that the emergency communications system that you only dust off and take out of the closet in an emergency probably won't work.”

Agencies also might find that in a major disaster — when everyone from local responders to FEMA to TV news crews competes for bandwidth — satellite systems don't work as advertised. “There's just a very limited amount of satellites and bandwidth available in the Western Hemisphere,” Holycross said. During the Katrina response, “everybody who went to that disaster brought a satellite unit, and all of a sudden, the satellite capacity was overloaded.”

Drake encountered this problem, too. In New Orleans, “as soon as some Coast Guard or FEMA team or somebody else moved in with satellite phones, you lost any ability to communicate. It would slow the network down.”

Drake noted that the OnSpot product promises guaranteed data rates, much as cellular carriers offer communications priority to first responders. “How well that functions in reality and in the true test of an emergency is anybody's guess at this point,” he said.

In Waveland, Miss., Holycross and his colleagues had fewer bandwidth problems than most because they were using a 3-meter satellite dish — one of 10 that Harris Corp. brought. “It was actually getting a satellite parked over the Mediterranean that everybody with smaller dishes could not hit,” he said. “That gave us some pretty consistent access.”