Talk groups offer quick interoperability
Emergency responders looking for interoperability may soon find it in an unlikely spot — 23,000 miles up.
Having operated satellite radio talk groups for the U.S. government for the past year and introducing several new regional groups in the last few months, Mobile Satellite Ventures of Reston, Va., is preparing to offer nationwide, overlapping coverage by the end of 2008.
“We will have nine overlapping regional SMART groups available for users,” said Jim Corry, vice president of government solutions for MSV, “that will be push-to-talk, one-to-one or one-to-many.”
Corry said that since the company announced the Department of Justice (DOJ) satellite mutual aid radio talk group (SMART) last August, MSV has aided the formation of two talk groups for the Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas (GSMART); two for the Mid-Atlantic states of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia (MSMART); and a talk group for the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC) dedicated to earthquake preparation and response in the central U.S. Soon, he says, that list will include operating groups in the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, West, Southwest and Northwest.
There are around 1000 active units subscribed to the DOJ talk group, in use at more than 120 public-safety agencies, Corry said. There also are three talk groups in use by the Department of Homeland Security’s National Communications System, and another nationwide talk group soon will be available to hospitals and state and local agencies to deal with public health incidents.
Although most of the administration and monitoring agreements for the new talk groups have been negotiated, Corry said, at press time he couldn’t disclose who the regional administrative and monitoring agencies would be.
Corry said each talk group needs an administrating agency — which sets up an e-mail address for the group, handles agencies’ applications to join the group and distributes the group’s operating procedures — and a monitoring agency, which “keeps an ear on” the talk group to make sure it is only being used for authorized purposes.
“We don’t want anyone using [a talk group] for running driver’s license checks or other routine business,” Corry said. “It’s only for larger-scale situations.”
Once a talk group in a region exists, Corry said, agencies using MSV gear that wish to participate only need to apply to their administrator. The administrator submits the applying agency’s radio ID numbers, and the talk group is automatically downloaded into each individual radio, ready to use when circumstances warrant.
Corry said that talk groups also can be used tactically. If a large number of responders are on a scene but not everyone has interoperable radios, or if some MSV radio users don’t have the talk group loaded into their units, they can get the group “on the fly” in a matter of minutes.
“The DOJ SMART can be loaded onto locals’ radios very quickly,” he said. “It adds an ad hoc group at the scene and gives the people there a lot of flexibility in their response.”
Another benefit, he said, is the system’s independence from terrestrial phone networks, cellular systems and electrical service. That leaves the system up and running in times of emergency, he says, but also means it is clear of everyday cellular and network congestion.
After hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated much of the Gulf Coast in 2005, many agencies in the region began looking for an interoperable system that still would be functional in the wake of such widespread and catastrophic destruction. The SMART talk group there has been tested in disaster-preparedness exercises and adopted by many of the same agencies that found themselves cut off during the hurricanes.
“Until one of our users [calls] someone on their land line, we have no connection to the plain old telephone network,” he said. “When those lines are down our system is still fully functional.”
Corry said the company expects most of its new talk groups to be available in the next few months, with nationwide talk group coverage available by the end of the year.