I’ve always wondered if our nation’s medical community could handle a large-scale disaster. Think about it. A biological bomb explodes in a major metropolitan area. Thousands of people are affected. Local first responders are overwhelmed with incidents, while paramedics and EMTs rush to the scene to save as many lives as possible. At one point, a radio call is sent over-the-air to other cities in the area to assist. But what if terrestrial systems are destroyed during the event, what then?

I thought about this as I recently spoke with Jim Corry, the vice president of government solutions at SkyTerra, a supplier of mobile satellite communications services that many in the industry may remember as Mobile Satellite Ventures before the company changed its name last year. The company hosts satellite mutual-aid radio talkgroups (SMARTs) that offer push-to-talk one-to-one, one-to-many communications through SkyTerra’s solution, which also allows users to receive a telephone call over satellite.

Corry believes these SMARTs are essential during times when terrestrial systems are shut down or unreliable. When communication infrastructure on the ground is damaged, users can depend on the company’s communication systems, he said. “The reason we are so popular with [clients] is because we are pretty much immune to terrestrial-network destruction, damage and congestion,” he said. “And we work very well in rural areas, where nothing else works.”

But participation by first-responder agencies is essential. Corry said those in the public-health arena now can access a SMART through the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH), which announced last week that it will serve as the first host of three national satellite radio network channels dedicated to communications among state and local public health agencies, hospital and healthcare organizations, and emergency medical service agencies in Kentucky and across the nation.

Corry said three satellite mutual aid radio talkgroup channels, NPHST-1, NPHST-2, and E-SMART will be available anywhere in the U.S. and could be the only form of communication for a public health agency or an Emergency Medical Service (EMS) team deployed to assist during a disaster. The nationwide satellite mutual aid radio talkgroup program lets public-safety agencies move across their town, state or region without losing critical communications, he said.

But it is up to each individual agency to subscribe to the SMART. And while access to SMART is free, participating agencies must have the budgetary funds to pay for SkyTerra equipment and a subscription to its satellite service.

Public-health and emergency-medical-service agencies authorized by DPH and the Kentucky Board of Emergency Medical Services (KBEMS) now can participate in a nationwide two-way satellite radio conversation, Corry said. DPH will be responsible for accepting applications to participate in the national public health satellite mutual aid radio talkgroups from public health and EMS agencies across the country. After validating the application, it will be sent to the SkyTerra Operations Center and processed to allow the requested channel to be downloaded via satellite to the requesting agency’s communication equipment. Around-the-clock monitoring of the channel is being facilitated with KBEMS and at the Medical Center EMS Dispatch Center.

As it goes through its initial phase, it should be interesting to see how many public-health agencies will find value in this satellite talkgroup and sign up for the service before year’s end.

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