Combining voice and data traffic is cost-efficient, FEMA says

FEMA has been testing voice-over-data products for disaster field offices in the
Caribbean and the southern United States since the summer.

“The whole experience is very promising,” said Bill Anderson, team leader in
the Development and Implementation Branch of FEMA’s Information Technology Division.
“The cost benefit is impressive.”

Other potential benefits are greater efficiency and ease of management—important
factors for setting up field offices within days in devastated areas.

The field trials evaluated the Multiservice Concentrator 3810 from Cisco Systems Inc.
of San Jose, Calif.

“We happened to be testing it at the time,” said Timothy S. Ritter, chief of
the Disaster Response Branch in the Engineering Division of FEMA’s IT Directorate.
When Hurricane Bonnie hit the North Carolina coast, “Cisco let us borrow some of the
equipment for use in Raleigh.”

Later, the concentrators carried phone calls to and from Puerto Rico and the U.S.
Virgin Islands.

They also helped out during recent flooding in Texas.

FEMA is testing additional equipment from Northern Telecom Inc. and Lucent Technologies
Inc. of Murray Hill, N.J., but has made no decision on what to adopt. “We need to
have an acquisition plan together by the end of this fiscal year,” Anderson said.

Management of FEMA’s voice and data networks is the job of the National Network
Operations Center at the Mount Weather Emergency Assistance Center, housed at a former
presidential retreat atop the Blue Ridge mountains of western Virginia.

The data network is a packet-based IP/IPX multivendor routed network. FEMA’s
Integrated Services Digital Network for voice has private branch exchanges to do the

After the divestiture of AT&T Corp., “we decided we would become our own
telephone company,” said Robert A. Morris, chief of national network operations.

The switched voice network provides telephone communications to FEMA facilities
throughout the United States and its territories, but remote disaster response sites must
make long-distance connections to reach FEMA’s network.

Initial links for a disaster field office sometimes must go via satellite if the local
communications infrastructure has been damaged. FEMA maintains two full-time T1
connections on the Telstar 401 satellite.

Satellite links give way to more efficient terrestrial lines. Modern telecommunications
systems have reduced the need for satellite hookups, Anderson said.

When disaster field offices need more permanent connections, FEMA extends the LAN from
Mount Weather to an asynchronous transfer mode router at the remote site via a T1 link.
Telephone connections usually are established over two T1 links from a PBX to the local
central office.

“Anything going out over telephone is a long-distance call,” Ritter said.
“We have FTS 2000 as a primary choice, so we have reasonable rates.” But calls
to other FEMA offices still are toll calls.

Voice-compression technology is what makes it feasible for field offices to use excess
capacity on the data lines to carry voice calls toll-free and possibly eliminate one of
the T1 voice lines.

A voice compression box ties the local PBX to the router. The PBX gets its dial tone
from Mount Weather. It directs local calls to the local central office. Long-distance
calls and calls within the FEMA network are switched to the router for a free ride to
Mount Weather.

Eight-to-one compression makes eight voice channels out of a single 64-Kbps Digital
Signal-0 channel, and the voice quality is good, Anderson said.

“That was one of the biggest surprises to me,” Anderson said. “The new
compression technology is better than I had ever heard. It sounds equivalent to toll

Systems tested so far are not perfect, however. The compression cards do not handle
high-speed modem connections or fax traffic very well. “We have to do a little more
programming on our network to identify modem calls and occasionally faxes,” he said.

But combining voice and data traffic is worth the effort, Anderson said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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