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Satellite SWAT Communications

In March 2002, the Escambia County, FL Sheriff’s Office SWAT team was called to a residence. A woman has been shot by her armed ex-husband, who was now believed to be barricaded inside the house. Along with SWAT, the Department’s Mobile Command Center (MCC) soon arrives.

Equipped with a satellite communications system, the MCC establishes an on-the-ground broadband connection between the scene and dispatch in real-time, both data and Voice-over-IP (VoIP) telephone service. As well, the MCC serves as the SWAT’s on-site command post; one that coordinates their efforts and keeps them in touch with dispatch at all times.

Within ten minutes, MCC staff finishes their search of the Sheriff’s Office database, quickly identifying both the victim and the suspected shooter. As they work away, members of the SWAT team carefully make their way into the residence. Inside, they discover that the victim is dead, and the suspect is gone. Alerted to this, the MCC immediately downloads pictures of the suspect via satellite, and provides hard copies to deputies on the scene. Soon after, the suspect is caught and charged.

“His trial was just a few weeks ago,” notes Captain Larry Aiken, officer-in-charge of North Zone Patrol Operations for the Escambia Sheriff’s Office. “He was found guilty.”

Satellite Communications and SWAT

This successful apprehension is just one instance of many where Escambia County’s MCC played a pivotal part. Having access to the Sheriff’s Office’s full range of police resources provided responding officers with a tremendous edge. 

But why satellite? Because satellite communications ensure reliable connections between the MCC and dispatch, no matter where in Escambia County trouble is occurring. Given that the County covers 661 square miles in the far northwestern Florida panhandle—much of it rural and sparsely populated—relying on terrestrial radio communications isn’t always practical, let alone possible.

“Satellite allows us to respond to any critical situation, no matter where it is,” says Captain Aiken. It certainly did so during an incident in neighboring Santa Rosa county, when an officer responding to a bogus 911 call was ambushed at a residence. “The guy in the house shot the officer through the door,” Captain Aiken recalls.

“Fortunately, the officer managed to crawl away and radio for help. Our SWAT team came in to assist, as did our MCC. We got the MCC up and running quickly, using it to establish a remote command and control post that was connected directly to the Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office.”

Eventually, the SWAT team retrieved the suspect—he committed suicide shortly before the team entered the house—and they would have done so even without having a satellite-linked command and control post nearby. This said, having satellite communications allowed the officers on scene to thoroughly research the suspect, then confer with their superiors on the best way to take him into custody. The result was faster response time, and enhanced officer safety through improved situational awareness.

What’s Onboard the MCC

The MCC’s satellite package is based on Hughes Network Systems’ (HNS) Business Plus two-way mobile satellite service, configured for Escambia County by Ground Control. Based in San Luis Obispo, California, Ground both installs communications systems and provides the services necessary to make them work, such as satellite bandwidth.

Inside the MCC, officers can access the Sheriff’s Office’s database as easily as if they were plugged into a hard-wired Local Area Network. Everything that is available to an officer at headquarters is available to them. Meanwhile, Sheriff Ron McNesby’s decision to add VoIP capability means that the MCC can connect directly into the Sheriff’s Office’s telephone switchboard (PBX), using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) IP data channel.

“No matter where we are, we can contact people in the department using our usual four digit extensions,” says Capt. Aiken. “I can go anywhere, dial 9620, and get my Communications Section. All told, I can access my desktop applications from the MCC and phone anyone I need to, just as if I were at a desk.” As a backup, the MCC also has a cellular-based PBX on board, just in case.

Beyond SWAT Comm

As a jurisdiction based in the hurricane zone, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office often finds itself supervising evacuations, maintaining security and public safety during hurricanes, and helping with the cleanup—including the prevention of looting—once the storm has passed. Not surprisingly, the MCC plays a central role in keeping its officers connected with dispatch during these chaotic times.

“During Hurricane Ivan, Pensacola took a direct hit,” says Captain Aiken. “Telephone lines, cell-phone service, and even electricity were down for weeks. However, our MCC satellite connection was unaffected.”

Homeland security is another area where reliable, robust communications are a must. Again, by adding the satellite uplink to its MCC, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office has ensured that attacks against terrestrial targets won’t knock out its field communications, as happened with telephone and cellular connections at Ground Zero.

“As homeland security efforts intensify, the need for emergency operations has become vital,” Sheriff McNesby said. “Satellite has allowed us to build the redundancy necessary to ensure that the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office is prepared for every contingency.”

On the lighter side, the MCC plays a central role in coordinating public safety at major public events such as the Blue Angels’ annual air show, which is held at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Thanks to the MCC, first responders can keep the public safe, and even get the chance to watch the show from time to time!

Really Need a Satellite Link?

That’s the question your bosses and local politicians will ask when your unit starts lobbying for a secure satellite link, whether in an MCC-style package, or as a standalone unit built into an SUV.

When they do, here’s what you can tell them: Satellite communications ensure that officers can stay in touch with dispatch no matter where an incident occurs. A satellite link will work no matter what has happened to equipment on the ground, whether the damage is due to natural forces or a terrorist attack. A satellite link can be used not just to send and receive voice and data communications, but also to support video-conferencing as well. You can even have officers equipped with video cameras show headquarters staff exactly what is happening on scene in real-time.

With the right equipment added, satellite communication can provide a valuable backbone for interoperable radio traffic by helping to interconnect voice traffic from different dispatches. It can even provide a path for federal agencies to communicate with local first responders, and provide a reverse path to ensure that those in Washington really know what’s going on before making major security decisions.

Does satellite communication have its downsides? Of course. For one thing, the distance between satellite earth stations and the spacecraft themselves adds a few seconds’ lag time between when a transmission is sent at one end, and received at the other. For another thing, although satellites are impervious to ground-based disasters, they can be damaged and even knocked out by solar flares. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

This said, the undeniable usefulness of satellite communication for SWAT has been proven by the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and its Mobile Command Center. With this technology at their disposal, local officers are able to do their job faster, better, and safer.

“The applications for satellite technology in public safety and law enforcement are limitless,” notes Captain Aiken. “Information is key to the success of any first responder agency. Satellite puts that information at your fingertips.”

James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He may be reached at

Published in Tactical Response, Mar/Apr 2006

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