Satellite video aids incident command
It is exceedingly difficult for police, fire and EMS headquarters personnel to command volatile situations from a distance. Without the ability to see and hear what’s happening with their own eyes and ears, top brass are often blind to unfolding events and forced to rely on the information they get via two-way radio, plus their own best guesses.
Nowhere was this brutal truth made more apparent than in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. “When 911 was in progress, there were no live video feeds from the scene being sent to [fire department headquarters],” said Allen S. Hay, FDNY chief of safety. “As a result, the people at the command level didn’t have a picture of what was going on.”
Consequently, the Fire Department of New York tested satellite videophones in 2004 and decided to buy them from Stratos Global Corp.
“Recent events, such as those on Sept. 11, 2001, have demonstrated that traditional land-based and cellular communications networks are not always reliable during an emergency,” said Jim Parm, Stratos’ president and CEO, in a statement.
According to Parm, Stratos’ satellite-based solutions provide a reliable, go-anywhere technology that can travel to the scene of an emergency and provide response teams with the secure and dependable communications they require — regardless of the status of terrestrial and cellular networks, which often are overwhelmed during major incidents or unavailable when infrastructure is wiped out during natural or man-made disasters.
In contrast, the satellite videophone system deployed by the FDNY provides a radio path that is largely immune to natural and man-made disasters. In fact, barring a deliberate missile attack on geosynchronous satellites orbiting 23,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, the FDNY’s video transmission path is secure.
As long as an FDNY officer at the scene has a portable satellite terminal, and the department’s MetroTech headquarters in Brooklyn has access to its own satellite terminal, the two-way video path between these two sites will be intact. In addition, the videophones selected by the FDNY are both simple and robust — the same system was used by tank-riding cameramen during the Iraq invasion.
The FDNY’s videophone system allows people at both ends to see and hear each other in real time using cameras and microphones built into their earth stations, which can be carried inside briefcase-sized portables or moved inside vehicles equipped with mobile transceivers and rooftop satellite antennas. At a scene, they will use the “Talking Head” TH-1 videophone manufactured by U.K.-based 7E Communications, which will be their audio/visual lifeline back to headquarters.
Mounted in a ruggedized, waterproof plastic suitcase, the 9-pound Talking Head has “everything you need inside,” said Alex Achille, the FDNY’s director of technical operations. “You open it up, and there’s a built-in camera, built-in mic, and a built-in LCD video screen and speaker, along with the controls to initiate the call.”
The TH-1 delivers video at 64 kb/s and 128 kb/s and can transceive video-conferencing signals using the H.263, H.261 and H.320 standards. It also can transmit low-speed video when high-quality audio (7.5 kHz) audio is desired. However, the image quality isn’t exactly HDTV. At 30 frames per second (full-motion video), the TH-1 transceives images measuring 176-by-144 pixels. At 15 frames per second, it provides video images measuring 352-by-288 pixels. The former would fill a quarter of a standard television screen, while the latter would take up one-sixteenth of a standard screen.
So why would the FDNY select a videophone that provides such small pictures? Because, at 15 frames per second, the FDNY can send and receive images from an incident scene using the Inmarsat GAN (Global Area Network) satellite system. At 64 kb/s per satellite channel — the same as a standard telephone ISDN line and slightly faster than a 56 kb/s Internet dial-up connection — the GAN’s data rate isn’t lightning fast. But combine two of these 64 kb/s Inmarsat channels, and you get a data pipe large enough to carry viewable video from a fire scene back to MetroTech.
By using an external video camera connected to the TH-1, headquarters can get a wide-angle view of the scene, Achille said. “The camera locks into an external mount and is wired back to the videophone. In fact, our guys have developed custom brackets that allow us to mount the camera either on the roof or on the side of the vehicle to get the best angles,” he said.
In addition, the FDNY is testing wireless transceivers, Achille said.
“This is for those situations where the vehicle can’t get close enough to the scene. We would also like to equip the camera with remote control, so that either the driver or someone back at headquarters can control where it is pointing. Right now, we have to have someone at the scene do all of this manually.”
For the land mobile radio industry, the discovery that a major customer such as the FDNY is using satellite communications could be unnerving. However, despite the usefulness of satellite videophones for first responders in general, there is no reason to fear lost business because — unlike the use of terrestrial spectrum — it costs the FDNY money every time it sends video via satellite.
“The fact that we only pay for the airtime we use makes a difference,” Achille said. “But, if we have a very lengthy disaster, it could get a little costly.” Consequently, the FDNY continues to use two-way radio for regular communications.
Nevertheless, the FDNY is eager for Stratos to complete the satellite videophone deployment.
“Had satellite videophones been deployed on 9/11, things might have been different,” FDNY Hay said. “At the very least, people at headquarters would have had a better situational awareness of what was going on and been able to provide more help to the people at the scene.”