From tornadoes to terrorism
When Fire Chief Tom Merrill looked out at Cordell, OK, after a Force Three tornado swept the city on Oct. 9, 2001, he couldn’t tell at first how many people may have been killed or injured. What he could see was massive destruction in the city of 2,867, located 84 miles east of Oklahoma City.
The fire chief knew that help would be forthcoming from neighboring jurisdictions, even as he mobilized his three full-time and 12 volunteer firefighters for the nucleus of the city’s disaster response. The fire department would have overall operational command of the incident.
The tornado came and went quickly. Within five minutes of the funnel lifting from the city, the fire chief found the cellphone service overloaded and blocked. In the following minutes and hours, the city’s emergency call center received hundreds of calls in a period when far fewer would be normal.
As calls from the public were sorted out, and as word came back from responders in the field, the good news was that the tornado had taken no lives, and only six people were injured. But an estimated 150 of the city’s 1,487 dwellings were destroyed or uninhabitable.
“More than 35 fire departments, 250 firefighters, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, various county sheriff offices, the Oklahoma National Guard and armies of utility and service units answered the call for assistance. We had some difficulty communicating with them by radio,” Merrill said.
The episode led to Cordell’s selection as a simulated disaster exercise location to demonstrate equipment for radio interoperability. The exercise did not provide training for emergency response organizations.
Lexington, MA-based Raytheon demonstrated how its First Responders Command and Communications Vehicle integrates voice and data communications carried over satellite telephones, wireless local area networks and two-way radio networks with incident command software. At the core of the FRCCV is a JPS Communications ACU-1000 cross-connect gateway, which interconnects otherwise incompatible radios by using their over-the-air signals.
The company built the FRCCV after reviewing the technologies it had already provided to the U.S. Department of Defense and how to use them to support the nation’s needs in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“But we wanted to show that the system is designed for more than a terrorist incident,” said Dale Craig. Craig is Raytheon’s site manager and capture leader for the FRCCV in the Command, Control, Communications and Information Division (known as C3I) at the company’s Garland, TX, facility.
Satellite links — “What we designed brings in two satellite links, including an Inmarsat terminal and a Globalstar system. They give the incident commander telephone service to replace the cellular that so often is overloaded during a disaster,” Craig said.
Inmarsat delivers a 64kbps uplink and downlink, but the vehicle must be stationary to use it. The Globalstar satellite phone works on the move. It provides voice communications and 9.6kbps data service.
Internet access — The vehicle has a Verizon cellular capability with as much as 120kbps of data linkage for using the Internet to receive information that the incident commander may want.
Two-way radio — “The ACU-1000 allows almost any type of radio systems to be linked together without changing existing radios. It can configure them into talk groups to manage, command and control various resources,” Craig said.
Wireless LANs — The FRCCV uses as many as three wireless LANs to connect with emergency operations centers at the scene. The wireless LANs can move video from a camera in wireless mode to the vehicle. That video can be linked by Inmarsat to share information with other agencies.
Incident management software — Software on the system allows the incident commander to manage resources on the scene and make decisions based on the commander’s concept of operation. Craig said that a Dallas fire chief had recommended FieldSoft software from the Chandler, AZ-based company with the same name as its product. Raytheon sent representatives to Phoenix to review it, and they chose it for the FRCCV.
President George W. Bush’s proposed budget includes $3.5 billion for equipping first responders. Raytheon saw an opportunity to adapt its military technology for police and fire departments eligible for grants that should follow from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
For a price ranging from $100,000 to $250,000, a public safety agency can deploy the mobile interoperability system in a Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle that can do some of the most important work of a network-based interoperable system worth millions of dollars.
“We think we are competitive, and that price seems to resonate with the fire battalion chiefs and some of the police commanders,” Craig said. “We’re not trying to sell radios; we’re providing a vehicle. For example, it gives a battalion fire chief the day-to-day capability to do his job, and when he has to scale up, it can do that. We also see a market with county sheriffs. They have a wide area to cover, often crossing city jurisdictional lines and involving different radios and frequencies with a need to link them.”
Simulating and communicating
In Cordell, the various mutual aid teams used the simulated disaster exercise to test their ability to respond to a derailment of a train carrying hazardous goods within city limits. The exercise drew responders from the Oklahoma National guard and police, fire and emergency medical services.
Meanwhile, the fire chief who provided incident command during last year’s tornado emergency and who used the vehicle during the disaster simulation said that the vehicle’s usefulness was evident.
“The vehicle is much too complicated for someone to comprehend its total capability during one such exercise, however its benefit was readily apparent. The vehicle would have been helpful during the Oct. 9, 2001, incident. The simulated disaster exercise featured several situations that involved organizations not normally used to communicating with each other. The vehicle made radio traffic routine between various frequencies and departments,” Merrill said.
Bishop is editorial director. His email address is [email protected]. Photo credits: EADS Telecom North America (above) and Cordell Beacon newspaper, Cordell, OK.
Tetrapol edges in through disaster exercise
The simulated disaster exercise in Cordell, OK, gave Dallas-based EADS Telecom North America an opportunity to demonstrate its Tetrapol trunked radio product, Connexity. The frequency-division, multiple-access (FDMA) product works on 12.5kHz-wide channels in the frequency range of 380MHz to 512MHz.
Tetrapol handsets were given to Oklahoma Governor Tom Keating and other observers to use as “pretend” incident commanders for a first-hand experience using the interoperable communications. The Tetrapol handsets used UHF frequencies licensed to the National Guard.
With its present frequency limitation, Connexity fits best with U.S. military and some motor transport applications. But Ralf Borgardt, director of U.S. sales at EADS Telecom, acknowledged that U.S. public safety radio communications is moving toward 800MHz.
“We will adapt our product for 800MHz. In fact, the Project 25 Phase II standard is the EADS two-slot TDMA design that fits Connexity with the required backward compatibility with Project 25 Phase I,” Borgardt said.
“Meanwhile, we are addressing the markets we can. For example, some motor transport companies have UHF frequencies. They have no special need for Project 25 compatibility, and they need the data capability that Tetrapol offers,” Borgardt said.
In October 2001, EADS Telecom partners Science Applications International and Raytheon won a $17 million contract to supply Tetrapol equipment to the U.S. Army, representing EADS Telecom’s — and Tetrapol’s — entry into the North America market.