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FOCUS: A SMART Model for Interoperable Communications
by Chief Charles Werner, Chair, International Association of Fire Chiefs Technology Council — in cooperation with SkyTerra Communications

For years, land mobile radio (LMR) networks have been the staple of public safety communications. Cell phones have increasingly been adopted as a communications tool by many first responders. However, neither option ensures reliable, interoperable and sustainable communications — the ability for multiple federal, state, local and tribal public safety teams to talk efficiently to each other during an emergency, or for daily operational communications.

Emergency situations can leave cellular networks congested or disabled, and land mobile radios typically only allow communications among officials within one unit or agency. Because of the radios’ limited geographic reach and restricted number of licensed frequencies, the equipment may not allow multi-agency interoperable communications between a police officer, a firefighter, a local EMS crew, a hospital in a neighboring state, or a representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Hurricane Katrina illustrated the need for reliable, interoperable communications. However, the Gulf Region and other areas prone to hurricanes are not the only places in need of this type of technology. Wildfires, earthquakes, tornados, severe snow storms and other natural and man-made disasters such as 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, and hostage situations, all require reliable, inter-agency communications to ensure the safety and security of the public.

Achieving interoperable communications nationwide is an increasingly high priority for policy makers and the public safety and emergency response communities. It is this growing concern that led an electronics technician with the FBI and an attorney with the DOJ to approach SkyTerra Communications (formerly Mobile Satellite Ventures) with an idea that would initiate the Satellite Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroup (SMART) program.

SMART is a satellite-based service that connects federal, state, local and tribal public safety professionals via numerous overlapping national and regional talkgroups. The SMART program is designed to tackle the financial and governance challenges that have often impeded the development of interoperable public safety communications.

SkyTerra’s satellite network delivers reliability and interoperability. Satellite service is available even when cell towers and landlines are congested or damaged, and is accessible from remote areas not served by terrestrial communications networks. The mobility of SkyTerra’s satellite terminals ensures that public safety officials can communicate, even if emergency operations’ centers need to be evacuated, which was the case during Hurricane Katrina. In addition, SkyTerra’s dispatch-style, push-to-talk technology is familiar to first responders and ideal for command and control. A SMART talkgroup provides significant interoperability in addition to other talkgroups that a SkyTerra customer may already be using locally.

To reduce financial barriers, Skyterra offers the SMART talkgroups free of charge to anyone who already has Push-to-Talk (PTT) service with SkyTerra. Many government and public safety organizations across the country currently are SkyTerra subscribers.

The management of SMART rests not with SkyTerra but is entirely in the hands of the people who know public safety best. Each SMART talkgroup is managed and monitored 24x7 by a different federal, state, or local public safety entity, ensuring design, control, and management by public safety officials through multiple public-private partnerships with SkyTerra.

SkyTerra’s Current Generation Network

Reliability Via Satellite
Reliability is imperative for successful interoperable communications. Without reliability, the efficient and timely movement of critical services and resources can be severely compromised, potentially costing unnecessary loss of life and personal distress. The SMART program ensures reliability by using SkyTerra’s satellite network. A satellite network is more dependable and available than landline or wireless service during an emergency or disaster, because satellites are generally more immune to the congestion and damage typically suffered by terrestrial networks, especially those touching the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).

Satellite networks also provide coverage in sparsely populated areas far from cellular and LMR towers. SkyTerra’s satellite network, in particular, is also capable of handling many simultaneous voice calls, PTT talkgroups, and low speed data transmissions. This capability ensures that public safety officials will be able to communicate, even when call traffic significantly increases during an emergency, because SkyTerra’s communications don’t depend upon the PSTN.

SkyTerra’s two geostationary satellites, MSAT1 and MSAT2, currently operate at 106.5° W and 101.3° W, respectively. They have six regional spot beams and a service link bandwidth of 29 MHz that provides satellite communications for all of North America and its coastal waters. (See Figure 1 on the previous page.) The extreme polar regions are not covered by SkyTerra’s service.

In 2010, the SMART program is expected to transition to SkyTerra’s two new satellites, which will be two of the most powerful satellites ever launched by a commercial satellite operator. These satellites and the additional benefits of SkyTerra’s next-generation network will be discussed in section three of this paper.

Mobile Satellite Communications
Mobility is an important cornerstone of interoperable communications for public safety — allowing emergency responders to stay in touch from the field and ensuring that those staffing emergency operations centers can take their SkyTerra satellite phones/two-way radios with them if a disaster forces them to evacuate.

To communicate with the satellites, SkyTerra users employ the MSAT-G2. The MSAT-G2 is lightweight and can be installed in a building, in a vehicle, or packaged as a Go-Kit for portable satellite communications. A Go-Kit is an MSAT-G2 packaged in a durable, water-resistant container with a battery to supply power for remote and “on-the-go” operations.

The MSAT-G2 contains three pieces of equipment: a handset, a transceiver, and an L-band antenna. The L-band antenna is auto-acquiring/auto-tracking and a 16 channel GPS receiver. The antenna is available in a land-mobile model or a maritime model that ensures consistent tracking of the satellite, even in choppy waters. The transceiver sends and receives signals to and from the satellites on SkyTerra’s L-band spectrum (1500/1600 MHz), and the handset operates as either a telephone or a two-way radio. (Figures 2 and 3 show the MSAT-G2 and the Go-Kit.)

The MSAT-G2 operates in the lowest frequencies of the L-band range (for commercial satellite communications). The longer wavelengths in the L-band provide better penetration than higher frequency bands. Signal degradation due to weather is not an issue.

In addition, the MSAT-G2 can be integrated with a two-wire interface (See Figure 4.) The interface connects the satellite terminal to a standard desk phone, providing a more traditional telephone experience, including a dial tone (which a satellite phone typically doesn’t produce). If the desk phone is cordless, the satellite coverage extends throughout a building with the same reach as the cordless phone.

The MSAT-G2 is also compatible with a number of off-the-shelf interoperability modules and vehicular repeaters. (See Figure 5 on the previous page.) The interoperability modules allow different brands and models of radios and wireless phones with PTT capability to interoperate with each other and the MSAT-G2 satellite telephone/two-way radio. The vehicular repeaters extend the range of an MSAT-G2 that has been installed in a car or truck. This set-up allows a public safety official to maintain connectivity when he exits his vehicle with an LMR portable radio. He continues to communicate on his portable back through the vehicle which is operating as a satellite repeater.

Satellite Telephony
SkyTerra’s satellite network provides two services: telephony and push-to-talk radio service. The telephony service is full duplex so callers can talk at the same time, similar to a landline or wireless phone call. Directory assistance and GPS tracking are available. Other call management features such as voicemail, call waiting, call forwarding, call blocking, and conference calling are also available.

The telephony service is compatible with the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS). This is important during situations when an emergency responder needs to make an urgent call to someone on a landline phone. In this case, once the call travels from the MSAT-G2 to the satellite and back to Earth, it still must travel through the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) to reach the individual on the landline (See Figure 6.) Call blocking often occurs on the PSTN when network controls are enabled during an emergency to protect this critical, terrestrial infrastructure. If the PSTN is congested with calls because of the emergency, GETS ensures that urgent calls from public officials get past those network controls and are successfully completed.

Push-to-Talk: The Key to Interoperability
SkyTerra is currently the only commercial satellite operator in North America offering push-to-talk service. SkyTerra’s two way, PTT radio service over satellite is a popular option for communications in remote areas or during emergency situations. The dispatch or two-way radio style is familiar to the public safety community and ideal for command and control. Individuals can efficiently broadcast messages to an entire talkgroup or talk one-to-one via a “private mode” talkgroup (See Figure 7.) The “trunking” concept inherent in SkyTerra’s push-to-talk service allows a large number of users to share a group of channels by simply pressing the PTT button.

The network has been designed to provide the most effective possible use of limited satellite power and bandwidth. In addition to using demand-assigned communication channels, the network also employs the concept of “call types” to assign different satellite power and call-handling resources to each call, depending on its type. In an incident where PSTN and cellular network congestion is an issue, SkyTerra’s group oriented communication is spectrally efficient as it allows communication within a large group of users with a single set of frequencies without touching the PSTN. Frequencies are released following a pre-defined period of inactivity (hang-time).

Each talkgroup can support up to 9,999 users, and each user can belong to as many as 16 talkgroups; 15 talkgroups provide one-to-many PTT, and the 16th talkgroup is a private mode talkgroup providing one-to-one PTT. All of this allows a department or agency to connect the entire department or subsets of a department who frequently work together. For example, a police department might set up a talkgroup for the entire force, another talkgroup just for senior management, and an additional talkgroup for the SWAT team. The SWAT commander could have all three programmed into his or her satellite phone for convenient access, as well as interdepartmental talkgroups.

Talkgroup managers can easily add any user — from any department or agency — provided the user has SkyTerra equipment.

Other features of the push-to-talk service include over the air programming, web-based GPS tracking, and priority interrupt, which allows a user a 20-30 second, hands-free interruption if another user is accidentally “keying” the microphone. The push-to-talk service also has dial-in and dial-out options. These options allow access to a talkgroup from anywhere in the world over any landline, cellular or satellite telephone (MSAT or other) with the use of a PIN; or access from the talkgroup to a preset phone number can also be accommodated. For example, if an emergency occurred while a supervisor was traveling in Europe, he or she could call in to the talkgroup within the United States to efficiently provide direction to the entire on-scene team.

To take advantage of the SMART program, a user department must:
  • Have a SkyTerra satellite radio kit.
  • Subscribe to SkyTerra service.
  • Apply to the specific SMART talkgroup manager(s) for the talkgroup(s) requested.
SkyTerra’s service will not:
  • Provide high-speed data service for media such as live camera feeds.
  • Provide handheld portable device communications similar to LMR portables.

Case History: Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks
In 2003, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks purchased numerous SkyTerra units. The department had them installed in the vehicles of the officers who patrol the state’s extensive waters and forests to ensure that fishing and hunting enthusiasts abide by state regulations. Mobile satellite communications are ideal for this unit, because the officers on patrol cover very large, remote areas that generally are out of LMR and cell phone range. SkyTerra’s satellite network allows the department to stay connected and coordinate efforts, even when miles from home base and each other.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Region damaging landlines, cellular networks, and LMR communication systems. Communications among the many federal, state and local entities involved in the rescue effort were extremely difficult throughout the region. SkyTerra’s satellite network, however, never failed — before, during, or after the storm. As a result, the State of Mississippi was able to call on the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks for help. By parking the satellite-equipped patrol vehicles at critical government offices and emergency facilities, Mississippi was able to immediately restore statewide communications, helping the disaster relief teams coordinate and prioritize efforts to best serve the public in the wake of the disaster.

Satellite Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroups (SMART)

The Development of SMART
In July of 2007, Robert Zanger with the DOJ-Wireless Management Office and Adam Siegel from the FBI approached SkyTerra about the idea of a nationwide, public safety talkgroup to facilitate interoperable communications during a crisis among federal, state, local and tribal authorities. SkyTerra’s push-to-talk service was ideal. However, in order to recruit users to the talkgroup — especially those in smaller, less-funded communities — the service could not be a financial burden.

To address this issue, SkyTerra revised its billing software and formed a new talkgroup category called SMART. SkyTerra offered unlimited access to SMART talkgroups at no additional cost to government public safety users with SkyTerra service. For security purposes, it was also important that the public safety community had control over who could join SMART. For DOJ’s J-SMART, the first talkgroup in the program, the Department of Justice agreed to manage the group. In addition, the joint FBI/DOJ communications center in Seattle monitors J-SMART 24 hours a day, seven days a week to mediate talkgroup operations and provide assistance in an emergency.

As a specific SMART talkgroup occupies just one of the 16 talkgroup slots available to each SkyTerra user, public safety professionals are able to maintain nationwide and regional interoperable communications of SMART separate from local talkgroups managed by individual agencies.

Public safety officials from departments and agencies across all levels of government soon joined J-SMART. By connecting these users, J-SMART created — for the first time — federal, state, local and tribal interoperability on a nationwide network across the United States.

Nationwide SMARTs
In addition to J-SMART managed by DOJ, the National Security and Emergency Preparedness Talkgroups (NS/EP) were created to ensure reliable communication among critical COOP/COG sites across the country, as well as the Network Operations Centers (NOC) of critical telecommunications’ companies.

The Department of Homeland Security’s National Communications System (NCS) manages and monitors these three NS/EP SMART talkgroups. SkyTerra and NCS also worked together to custom design a box for the MSAT-G2 to be installed in every site. In addition to the transceiver unit, these boxes are equipped with diagnostic lights, surge protection, voltage regulation, and battery backup to ensure that these units are always powered and available if an emergency should occur.

The Kentucky Department for Public Health (KDPH) manages two National Public Health Satellite TalkgroupsNPHST-1 and NPHST-2. NPHST-1 connects the health departments of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. NPHST-2 connects a larger group of state and county health departments, hospitals, and other medical facilities, ensuring reliable communications among the nation’s health community. KDPH manages these two SMART talkgroups, and 24x7 monitoring is provided by the Director’s Emergency Operations Center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

“It is critical for us to be able to quickly move rescue workers, medical support, repair teams and essential supplies in order to save lives and quickly begin recovery and rebuilding. And we can’t do that when our communication systems are down.”

Regional SMARTs
Regional SMARTs enable public safety interoperability within smaller areas of the country. The first regional group addressed the need for interoperable communications across the Gulf Region, which continues to be plagued by hurricanes and tropical storms. SkyTerra established G-SMART, for public safety officials across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

G-SMART is managed by the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and monitored by the Louisiana State Emergency Operations Center. The Governor’s Office has the ability to quickly add and remove individuals to and from this talkgroup. This capability is important, as it allows federal organizations such as FEMA and the Red Cross and public safety teams from across the country to be included in the conversation when they arrive to help.

Since the development of J-SMART and G-SMART, SkyTerra has worked with local, regional and national entities to create eight more regional talkgroups. Annex B depicts how national and regional SMART groups overlap, detailing each group and providing contact information for each SMART manager.

Case History: Hurricane Gustav Preparations
Throughout the 2008 Labor Day Weekend, SkyTerra offices in the United States and Canada stayed in constant touch with federal, state, and local agencies equipped with SkyTerra technology operating in the Gulf States in support of Hurricane Gustav emergency response and relief efforts. In addition to G-SMART, the public safety personnel in the Gulf States were also able to conduct interoperable communications with the nationwide J-SMART talkgroup managed by the Department of Justice, as well as the neighboring 12-state Southeast SMART talkgroup — a regional group that encompasses various federal, state local, and tribal public safety organizations throughout the southeast U.S. The SkyTerra emergency communications team worked throughout the weekend activating new equipment, moving critical talkgroups to first responder’s SkyTerra devices, and conducting long-distance refresher training in satellite communications. SkyTerra also provided loaner devices to several critical agencies that activated emergency response plans and deployed to the region.

Talkgroups For Specific Purposes
While all of these SMARTs are used for command and control (C&C), SkyTerra’s push-to-talk service also can be used for interoperable tactical operations. In addition to J-SMART, DOJ also operates SMART-T. This SMART would be used, for example, in a hostage situation or standoff where DOJ, state, and local law enforcement are all working together to manage a situation. Most likely, these groups would all have different types of day-to-day communication equipment. However, with SMART-T, DOJ could quickly add everyone involved in the situation to the talkgroup. The team could communicate seamlessly, helping to resolve the incident as quickly and safely as possible. Once the situation is over, DOJ can remove users just as easily.

Following the successful rollout of the Regional SMART Network, SkyTerra cooperated with the Charlottesville VA Fire Department, the Kentucky Department for Public Health, and the United States Marshals Service to establish three nationwide public safety talkgroups focused to serve fire service, emergency medical services, and law enforcement respectively. Fire Service (F-SMART), Emergency Medical Services (E-SMART) and Law Enforcement (L-SMART) provide an important supplement to existing interoperable communications among agencies with specific public safety missions.

SkyTerra is currently working to develop SMART talkgroups for cross-border interoperability. SkyTerra envisions three SMARTs on the U.S./Mexican border and another three on the U.S./Canadian border. Discussions regarding governance of these SMART talkgroups will soon be undertaken with appropriate officials from Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. (See Figure 8.)

Border SMART Talkgroups
For emergency response, law enforcement, or public health, SMART meets the need for nationwide interoperability among multiple federal, state, local and tribal public safety teams, providing these professionals with the communications tools they need to ensure the safety and security of the American public. SMART has established federal, state, local, and tribal interoperability on a nationwide network at the national and regional level and all managed by federal, state, local agencies and one not-for-profit, the U.S. Earthquake Consortium.

Powerful New Satellites

SkyTerra’s Next-Generation
SkyTerra is currently building its next-generation, integrated satellite-terrestrial network. In order to support the dramatic increase in users as well as the growing number of broadband applications, SkyTerra is constructing two new satellites, SkyTerra 1 and SkyTerra 2, which will be two of the most powerful commercial satellites ever built.

These two new geostationary satellites, which will replace MSAT1 and MSAT2, will operate at 101.3° W and 107.3° W, will have 500 spot beams, an antenna diameter of 22 meters (75 feet), and will have 10 times the power of current generation satellites. These new satellites will support the bandwidth and applications that current and future generations of wireless communication users demand. The satellites are expected to begin operations in 2010.

A SMARTer Decision
In recent years, the United States has faced a variety of costly natural and man-made disasters. From hurricanes and tornadoes, wildfires, flooding and earthquakes to high profile standoffs and the 9-11 terrorist attacks, events have taught us that many emergencies today affect significant numbers of the population.

This has amplified the need for dependable communications that enable organizations to communicate with each other. These situations have also demonstrated time and time again that mobile satellite communications is quite often the only means available to the public safety/emergency responder community.

To address these needs, federal, state and local agencies have voluntarily banded together with SkyTerra in a public-private partnership to create the SMART program — enabling nationwide and regional interoperability at no additional cost to SkyTerra users.

As SMART is a feature provided at no cost to SkyTerra’s public safety users, it is a cost-efficient program that delivers measurable return on investment — swift and reliable communications interoperability for emergency response and contingency operations. With the rapid growth of SMART, public safety and emergency responders have a resource that enables communications interoperability that is immediate, reliable and always available.