Without question, satellite technologies are on the radar screen of public-safety agencies across the country, for several reasons. One is that the technology has proved its worth time and time again in the aftermath of major disasters that rendered terrestrial communications systems inoperable. Another is that agencies are waking up to the fact that satellite has purpose for everyday operations.

For example, the city of Chicago is using its satellite-equipped unified command vehicle to redirect 911 center voice and data traffic when necessary. The decision to do this came in the aftermath of a power failure nine years ago that knocked off line the city's 911 center for three hours. The center is one of the nation's largest with 109 positions that handle up to 23,000 calls on a peak day.

"A two- to three-hour outage is huge," said David Beering, managing director of advanced networks for Morgan Franklin Corp., which worked with the city on the satellite deployment.

Another reason that satellite is becoming more popular in the public-safety sector is that satellite service providers are working hard to eliminate cost as a barrier to entry. Several providers have so-called lifeline plans that put agencies on the grid for a nominal fee; then, when major incidents occur, agencies can increase bandwidth on demand, paying only for what they use. Generally, the agency receives priority access in such circumstances.

The technology likely will become even more popular in the future as subscriber units shrink in size, which they are beginning to do thanks to the very large satellites that now are orbiting. The larger the satellite, the smaller the antenna needed to pick up the signal. Hence, handsets already are available that are no bigger than a PDA. This is in sharp contrast to the historical size of satellite handsets, which roughly were the size of construction bricks.

But no matter how an agency uses satellite technology, the key to using it effectively is to use it often, according to panelists — which included Beering — speaking this week at IWCE 2010 in Las Vegas.

Too often, satellite technology sits on the shelf until a disaster hits. In such circumstances, batteries are dead, service contracts have expired and personnel have forgotten how to deploy and use it. That's a big problem in the first crucial hours of a major incident, said Jim Corry, vice president of government solutions for SkyTerra.

"That's not a good time to read the owner's manual," Corry said.

However, when satellite is used on a regular, if not daily, basis, the results are quite different, Corry said. He offered the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks as a shining example of how to leverage satellite technology.

According to Corry, the department installed satellite equipment in each of its 350 patrol cars, because there are numerous areas that suffer from poor LMR coverage and there is very little use of microwave backhaul in the state.

"They started to use satellite for primary coverage," Corry said.

So, the department and its personnel were up to speed on the technology, which was crucial in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which took down wireline and cellular communications in the affected area — including the statewide radio system. When that happened, the department deployed its satellite-equipped patrol cars to act as nodes in order to restore communications.

"Mississippi, with the way they have this equipment deployed and the way they use it every day, is probably the best-practiced state in the entire nation on how to use satellite communications," Corry said, adding "if you're going to buy this stuff, you have to practice with it."

Corry, a former Secret Service agent, then shared a personal anecdote to hammer home his point. As a federal agent, he was required to re-qualify on his personal firearm on a monthly basis, and on other firearms once every three months. "It wasn't because they had a lot of excess ammo," he said. "They wanted to make sure I knew how to use [my weapon]."

Then, one day, all of the practice paid off. "That training philosophy saved my life during a bank robbery in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1978," Corry said. "That same concept will save you in a rural area or a disaster area, when you're dragging up any communications equipment that you have to be able to use."

  • Read the "Use it or lose it" feature from the April issue to learn more about why satellite communications are most effective when they're used for more than disaster response.