The Kentucky Department for Public Healthwill regionally manage national public health-oriented satellite talkgroups offered through SkyTerra Communications' SMART (satellite mutual-aid radio talkgroups) program. The talkgroups will provide a communication outlet that can be used specifically by regional, medical-based first responders, said Drew Chandler, IT and communications manager for the department’s preparedness branch.

Chandler said three national public health satellite channels will be available. For example, one channel isdedicated to senior health and medical officials in each state and U.S. territory. As part of the agreement, SkyTerra (formerly Mobile Satellite Ventures) will provide two satellites to support the channel. “It will keep chatter off the channel and be a reserved space specifically for that type of high-level coordination,” Chandler said.

Another talkgroup will be open to all health or medical agencies, with the capacity to support upwards of 10,000 users. The final group is for emergency medical service agencies, dubbed E-SMART. It is open to EMS agencies only. Chandler said agencies must subscribe to and purchase equipment from SkyTerra to tap into SMART talkgroups.

The department currently uses satellite services from SkyTerra for contingency planning for daily incidents and during emergency response operations. The department has satellite units in different regions of the state to provide communications, Chandler said. Such a capability is needed because Kentucky doesn’t have an existing statewide system for all public-safety agencies due to budget shortfalls, he said. In addition, the diverse topography, from plains to mountains, makes the build-out of a terrestrial, line-of-sight network and a system of repeaters financially infeasible.

“EMS agencies in the east and west don’t have a lot of commonalities when it comes to their communication links,” Chandler said. “That’s where satellite communications has aided us.”

Chandler said the satellite communication system assisted medical responders during the recent ice storms and severe weather that hit the state’s western, rural areas. The storms crippled terrestrial infrastructure in the area, including land-based and cellular communications. Satellite was the only available communication network for the first 72 hours of the response, he said.

“It’s an invaluable tool,” Chandler said. “If we hadn’t had it, there would have been counties we couldn’t talk to for more than a week.”

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