Have emergency, will travel

Have emergency, will travel

FEMA's Thomasville, Ga., emergency operations vehicle gives workers the computing and communications resources they need without relying on local infrastructure.

FEMA turns semitrailers into mobile communications service stations

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

One big problem in disaster response is that just when the communications infrastructure is most needed, it is likely to be damaged or overburdened.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been experimenting with emergency operations vehicles to provide working space and communications facilities for FEMA response teams, complete with telephone systems and LANs. The idea is to deploy EOVs rapidly to a disaster site or state emergency operations center.

'It lets us keep out of the way of other people' who need the local communications resources, said Steve Levinson, chief of FEMA's Mobile Emergency Response Sites.

'We don't have to worry about what kinds of services are available when we get there,' said Mike Weaver, information processing supervisor for MERS in Thomasville, Ga.

FEMA has five regional MERS. In addition to Thomasville, there are sites in Bothell, Wash.; Denton, Texas; Denver; and Maynard, Mass.

The Thomasville site is 'pretty much the busiest MERS because we're on the East Coast where all the hurricanes are,' Weaver said. 'During hurricane season, we don't go anywhere unless we know what the weather is going to do.'

Power wheels

Thomasville is the second MERS to use an EOV. Denton built the first one in 1997. Both are one-of-a-kind conversions of 18-wheel semitrailers with work areas and network connections. The Denton model is an oversized trailer bought as surplus from the Marshals Service. It expands hydraulically from 10 feet wide to 26 feet.

The bulky prototypes have worked well enough that FEMA is planning to equip each MERS with small, self-contained and self-propelled EOVs that each accommodate 12 client stations, Levinson said.

The Thomasville model is a trailer, converted about a year ago, that houses seven PCs, its own Ethernet and a 24-trunk telephone switch.

The LAN has a Cisco 2500 series router from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., that serves not only the seven PCs but also any additional computers and devices set up inside the EOV or in adjacent buildings. A second FEMA trailer carries extra computers, printers and cellular telephones for field workers. A 400-MHz Pentium II file server in the EOV runs a Novell Inc. network operating system and has a 250-user license.

Depending on where the EOV is set up, the router can connect to the state's local emergency response backbone or to a FEMA mobile radio van that supplies data circuits through FEMA satellite links.

Telephone service goes through a Merlin switch from Lucent Technologies Inc. of Murray Hill, N.J. The switch supports up to 24 trunk lines and 100 telephones.

'Usually we only wind up with eight or 10 trunk lines,' Weaver said.

The mobile radio van can provide dial tone for the EOV if local telephone lines are not available, as well as four T1 data circuits. Additional bandwidth comes via WebRamp routers from Ramp Networks Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., which can use analog modems to connect with FEMA's toll-free remote access number.

The WebRamp routers, designed for small-office remote access, also can provide access to the EOV from workers in the field.

The home-grown prototype EOVs are flexible enough to augment communications at state emergency response centers or to furnish all service at a disaster site, 'anyplace communications are needed,' Weaver said.


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