The American Red Cross gets plenty of practice on its satellite equipment, as it deploys the technology at 50 to 70 disasters per year. But not all disasters look alike, according to Keith Robertory, the agency’s disaster services technology manager. Consequently, care must be taken to consider the nuances borne of the type of event and the environment in which it is occurring.

“We have a saying, ‘If you’ve been on one disaster, you’ve been on one disaster,’” Robertory said. “Being on one disaster does not make you an expert.” It also doesn’t mean that what worked at one disaster is going to work at all disasters, and vice versa, he added.

Robertory also said that practice is essential to effective use of satellite technology, so essential that his agency — which currently is using such communications extensively to support its relief efforts in Haiti after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated the island nation in January — goes to great lengths to ensure that such practice occurs.

“We sometimes roll out the equipment not because we need it, but because we want people to play with it,” Robertory said.

Training and practice only can take an agency so far, however. Governance also plays a crucial role in how soon satellite communications can be up and running, and whether they will be effective. For instance, commercial power often is rendered inoperable in the aftermath of major disasters — which means that “charge batteries” needs to appear somewhere on the checklist.

“You can bring some pretty sophisticated satellite technology into a region, but if it doesn’t work when it’s needed, it’s going to be pretty much useless to you,” Robertory said.

But fully charged batteries represent just the tip of the governance iceberg — bandwidth considerations are a much bigger worry, according to Robertory.

“You have to ask, ‘Where are the spot beams?’ The satellite I use covers half the globe, but there’s a big chunk of the Pacific Ocean where it doesn’t provide a signal,” he said. “And what happens when you get a lot of devices on the same spot beam? These are questions that must be asked.”

Because there is only so much capacity to be spread around, care also must be given to allocate it based on priority, similar to the way a military hospital on the front lines might triage patient care, according to Alasdair Calder, director of product management for Spacenet. The company deployed four VSAT (very small aperture terminal) sites in Haiti that generally provided data speeds of 5 Mb/s download and 1-2 Mb/s upload. However, 10 Mb/s bandwidth was provided to the American Red Cross and even more was provided to certain field hospitals.

“We provided the bandwidth where it was really needed the most.”

Editor’s note: For an expanded article on this topic, see the April edition of Urgent Communications.

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