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NCS priority telecommunications services—communications emergency responders can count on

 

One of the most difficult challenges in responding to an emergency or natural disaster is maintaining vital communications among emergency responders. When disasters strike, the public telephone network can quickly become congested. Government leaders, police, fire and rescue workers, and other emergency responders must compete with the general public for the same congested landline and wireless resources.

As a means of solving the congestion problem for emergency personnel, the National Communications System (NCS), part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Cyber Security and Communications, provides priority telecommunications services that ensure ongoing communications under all circumstances, including national emergencies, terrorist attacks, or other crisis events.

“These priority services allow emergency responders and other key NS/EP personnel to have their critical communications get “priority” treatment over calls from the general public during times when the public network is severely congested,” said Frank Suraci, program director for the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) and Wireless Priority Service (WPS).

Suraci went on to say the NCS is the lead agency under the National Response Plan for Emergency Support Function 2—Communications, and provides priority telecom services in response to White House Executive Orders and tasking.

The NCS priority telecommunications service offerings include: Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS), Wireless Priority Service (WPS), and Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP) program.

Keeping the Connection

GETS is a nationwide landline priority service. The NCS designed GETS for use in a crisis, disaster, or other emergency when the probability of completing a phone call significantly decreases. The wildfires in California, severe storms, and Midwest flooding this summer have shown how natural disasters can severely cripple the telephone service in effected regions.

“GETS is designed to make maximum use of all available telephone resources when congestion and outages occur, whatever the emergency may be,” said Vernon Mosley, GETS / WPS chief engineer. “Whether it is a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or a regional or local event, like the Virginia Tech shootings or the mining disaster in Utah, GETS facilitates NS/EP communications so that emergency responders can effectively communicate and efficiently respond.”

GETS provides emergency personnel access and priority processing in the public telephone network during any disaster or emergency event. Subscribers use a calling card that triggers priority treatment over the general public by dialing a unique access number and entering a personal identification number. Emergency responders receive priority in the public network by having their calls queue—moving their emergency call to the first available free line, and having their calls exempt from network management controls the telephone carriers place on their networks to control the flow of telephone calls during periods of congestion. GETS provides priority within the public telephone network but does not pre-empt ongoing phone calls.

Agencies and people looking to subscribe to GETS can apply online at http://gets.ncs.gov. There is no initial sign-up fee or monthly recurring charge associated with this program. The cost of a GETS call varies from 7 to 10 cents per minute, depending on the carrier. State and local emergency officials must enroll in the program and obtain NCS sponsorship to receive a GETS card.

Priority on Cell Phones

WPS is the NCS’ wireless companion to the GETS program and provides emergency responders with similar priority treatment when they experience high levels of congestion when dialing from their cell phones. WPS provides priority for calls originated from cell phones through a combination of special cellular network features and provides the same “high probability of completion” capability used by GETS. Most important, WPS addresses congestion in the local cell—often the reason why cellular calls cannot be completed during heavy calling periods or when damage to network infrastructure occurs.

“During the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis, several providers reported network congestion in the downtown area,” Suraci said. “Frustrated commuters and fearful families were trying to contact one another, potentially clogging the lines and hampering rescue efforts. This is precisely when WPS is most valuable to emergency workers.”

In July 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Report and Order authorizing WPS. This ruling established the regulatory, administrative, and operational framework that enables wireless service providers to offer WPS to NS/EP personnel. The FCC does not require wireless service providers to offer WPS; it’s a voluntary program. Although the FCC maintains oversight of the WPS program, NCS is responsible for its day-to-day administration.

In emergency situations that involve damaged landline networks, cellular telephones often provide the primary means of communication, increasing congestion even further. WPS allows authorized personnel to gain access to the next available wireless radio channel in order to initiate calls during an emergency. Subscribers can invoke the WPS service by dialing a unique access code before entering their destination number.

WPS, when used in conjunction with GETS, ensures priority treatment in both the landline and wireless portions of the public telephone network. This ensures wireless callers the highest possibility of end-to-end call completion. The use of WPS and GETS assures to the greatest extent possible that emergency workers get connected and stay connected to one another.

Current carriers for WPS include AT&T Mobility (formerly Cingular), Edge Wireless, Sprint / Nextel (iDEN-formerly Nextel), SouthernLINC, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. The cost for WPS will not exceed a $10, one-time activation fee, a $4.50 per month service fee, and 75 cents per minute when it is used. WPS charges are in addition to the basic subscription charges of the carrier. Additional service information and application forms can be accessed through the WPS Web site at http://wps.ncs.gov.

“GETS and WPS have been instrumental in maintaining essential communications during many disasters, as was demonstrated during Hurricane Katrina,” Mosley said. “With GETS currently serving over 166,000 and WPS serving over 45,000 users, it is evident that these priority services are vital to the emergency response community.”

Insurance for Critical Circuits

NCS also manages and operates an FCC program called Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP). TSP is used for the provisioning and/or restoration of NS/EP telecommunications services. That is, services defined as being most critical to homeland security.

The nation’s telecommunications infrastructure that supports emergency communications is not impervious to disasters. Forest fires, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, or other natural disasters can also leave the nation’s infrastructure severely damaged or totally destroyed. In events such as these, telecommunications service vendors may become overwhelmed with requests for new services or restoration of existing services. In the wake of a disaster event, it is difficult for service providers to determine who or where service should be restored first. The TSP program provides service vendors with an FCC mandate for prioritizing these services, which are critical to NS/EP. A TSP assignment ensures that it will receive priority attention by the service vendor before any non-TSP service.

According to Deborah Bea, TSP program manager, DHS/ NCS, “TSP has been instrumental in maintaining critical communications in many disasters. The program played a crucial role in the restoration of telecommunications services in lower Manhattan after the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and, again, in the Northeast blackout of 2003. During the Florida hurricanes in 2004, one major carrier responded to over 400 restoration calls and countless calls for the provisioning of temporary circuits.”

In the event of a crisis, the TSP program is the only authorized mechanism to enable priority provisioning and restoration of NS/EP telecommunications services. It is important to note, however, that though federal, state, and local government entities have NS/EP communications assets, they will not automatically receive priority treatment unless they have signed up for the service. Under the rules of the program, service vendors must provision and restore communications services to those organizations or entities that have TSP before those that are not part of the program.

Today, TSP services local government officials, public safety communications personnel, FEMA, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and many other departments and agencies that deal with crises and emergencies as part of their day-to-day job responsibilities. The program currently has more than 73,000 NS/EP circuits, representing multiple critical infrastructures, protected with TSP assignments. The cost for the program consists of a one-time fee of $100 (on average) to start the service and about $3 a month to maintain it.

The FCC and the NCS encourage emergency dispatchers, 9-1-1 centers, and other emergency response entities to avail themselves of the benefits of the TSP program. Ken Moran, acting chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said, “The lack of participation could jeopardize the restoration of essential communications services during times of terrorist attacks or natural disaster that could put the American public at substantial risk of harm at times when they are most vulnerable.”

SHARES

In addition to the priority telecommunications services, another program that is available to the emergency management community is the Shared Resources (SHARES) High Frequency (HF) Radio Program. The SHARES program brings together the assets of more than 1,300 HF radio stations worldwide to voluntarily pass emergency messages when normal communications are destroyed or unavailable. SHARES uses common radio operating and message formatting procedures and more than 250 designated frequencies.

Participation in SHARES is open to all federal departments and agencies and their designated affiliates on a voluntary basis. More than 99 federal, state, and industry organizations currently contribute resources throughout the United States and in 26 countries and U.S. possessions.

Officials with the NCS urge emergency responders, emergency managers, public safety officials, and other NS/EP personnel alike, to avail themselves of as many of these important programs as possible to ensure the continuity of essential communications during times of disaster or terrorist attacks.

About the NCS

President John F. Kennedy formed the NCS in 1963 in response to communications deficiencies realized during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since that time, NCS has grown in function and scope. Originally, the NCS mission was to eliminate deficiencies in the nation’s communications network supporting the president and other key decision makers and government officials.

Today, the NCS—comprises 23 federal departments and agencies—assists the president, the National Security Council, the Director of Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and now the Department of Homeland Security in assuring ongoing NS/EP communications at all times and in all instances.

As part of this massive effort, the NCS provides priority telecommunications services, coordination and information-sharing operations, and other related programs to support NS/EP efforts across all levels of government, critical infrastructure industries, and other authorized emergency response organizations.

The NCS is able to provide priority communications through the joint effort of federal government entities and the nation’s communications equipment manufacturers and service providers. Together, both sides work to develop ways to protect emergency response communications on the public telephone network. About 95% of the federal government’s telecommunications travel over this network.

To learn more about all of the programs and services offered by NCS, visit the organization’s Web site at www.ncs.gov or call (866)NCS-CALL [(866)627-2255].

EDITOR’S NOTE: The article above was submitted by the National Communications System, Department of Homeland Security, as a public service.

Published in Public Safety IT, Sep/Oct 2007

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