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Secure interoperability during and after an incident

Written by Stephenie Slahor

When an incident occurs, all agencies must be able to communicate efficiently and easily with one another. Such “seamless” communications was the topic for a panel during the recent International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) in Las Vegas. Panel members included Moderator Stephen Devine, interoperability program manager, Office of the Director at the Missouri Department of Public Safety; Tony Celia, director of business development at Fortress Technologies; George Crouch, wireless technology manager of the South Carolina Budget & Control Board, Division of the State Chief Information Office; Charles Hoffman, chief of Disaster Emergency Communications Programs, Disaster Operations Directorate at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Chip Yager, director of operations of the Mesh Networks Product Group at Motorola Inc.; and Paul McLaren, director of support engineering at Positron Public Safety.

Moderator Steve Devine set the theme, saying preparedness is necessary. “Don’t wait for the event to happen.” Tony Celia agreed, saying that secure and simple communications are necessary in an event, but factors must be considered to make such communications the best possible. He said the emphasis should be on rugged and easily deployed equipment that can be used in a rough environment—the kind of environment often found during or after major incidents. There must be a capability to discover, automatically, the presence of wireless equipment, and the type of equipment. The equipment needs to be secure, and there must be a way to avoid interference with radar or any other local conditions. Although regulations are both changing and challenging, he said regulatory support is necessary.

George Crouch added that such communications planning is not only for voice communications, but also for data, telephone / VoIP and other two-way functionality. “The important thing is,” he said, “that whatever you’re going to do starts before the incident occurs. That plan needs to be in place,” and planners must know what technology can do and what it cannot do, especially as it might tend to interfere with what is already in place.

Have contacts with vendors and know what you want for your problems, Crouch said. “Know what void you are filling.” Learn about products and vendors, and decide whether renting or buying is the best choice. Look for grants, he urged, because they might pay for such things as portable towers, digital encryption capability, satellite phones, two-way radios and other equipment or features you need.

Basically, have a plan for interoperability, Crouch said. Trunking systems may be statewide, but you also need portable capability in case something is rendered inoperable because of a storm or other catastrophe. He added that aircraft-certified antennae may be wise, too, for instant communications.

Crouch advised to plan for your system and examine all the options and the needs you have.

Charles Hoffman explained that FEMA “learned a lot of lessons from (Hurricane) Katrina.” The Disaster Emergency Communi-cations Division’s guidelines promote responding, maintaining or restoring equipment after an incident. An incident response vehicle fleet has satellite backhaul, HF, VHF, UHF, 700 and 800 MHz capability, computers and GPS. Portable towers enhance the communications. Cell stack capability is also possible if a cell system is destroyed or degraded in an area. The vehicles are within about a 500 miles-a-day drive of each region of the country, but Hoffman emphasized that FEMA is “not coming in to take over,” when an incident occurs. FEMA comes in at a state’s request, and then, a coordinated response is done.

Communications packages of small, medium and large capabilities for the safety of people and for property damage can range from cell phone to air-to-ground communications or other plans. Management teams must be trained and prepared, and equipment must be able to cope with a range from “daily use, to low-intensity event, to catastrophic event,” he said. He added that 26 states have been checked (mostly hurricane-prone states) to be sure equipment can sustain damage from storm surges and other disasters.

Chip Yager said mesh technology is the key for rapid deployment whether the event is something known about in advance, such as a major concert / sporting event or an approaching storm, or something that occurs unexpectedly. Wireless mesh networks don’t need a tower, he explained, and can function with each radio acting as router / repeater to strengthen the network. Such a system supports not only voice / VoIP, but also fixed video backhaul, Internet and communications among team members aboard moving vehicles.

The system should be easy to deploy before or during an event and can be made to accommodate such things as personal video recorders / wearable cameras, night use and infrared for images from the scene, and a means of access to information from criminal records, medical records or HazMat activity. An on-scene commander can be proactive, not reactive, with such access to information, Yager stated. Real-time monitoring assists during the event, and playback can be used after the event to evaluate effectiveness of what was done.

Paul McLaren said voice and data services need to have access to information and tools even if a gateway is down. He advised seeing if vendors have responders ready to come on the scene of an incident. “The bigger the incident, the more interoperability needed,” he explained, and sometimes vendors can be of much assistance in such a case.

Off-site personnel can often handle multiple sites from non-incident areas. Such a system was needed during Hurricane Katrina when it was important to know whether personnel had their vaccinations up to date before entering areas where contaminated water and other hazards existed.

McLaren pointed out that equipment purchases and plans after Hurricane Katrina were the rule, but now things have slowed somewhat. He suggested the need for a continuous effort of working with developers of technology to find better ways to move data and keep systems viable.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at drss12@msn.com.

Published in Public Safety IT, May/Jun 2009

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