Connecticut emergency calls go via satellite

Connecticut's Public Health Department, like many health departments after Sept. 11, 2001, wanted to bolster its emergency communications.

Last year the department received a $409,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to acquire a new emergency communications system that would be secure, reliable and self-sufficient.

Connecticut health officials thoroughly surveyed all the available technologies. 'We looked at multimillion-dollar microwave systems, radios, secure scrambled systems, everything,' said Mike Purcaro, division director for Connecticut Public Health.

The department finally chose a satellite-based emergency radio dispatch network supplied by Mobile Satellite Ventures of Reston, Va., with equipment, maintenance and training from Liberty Communications Inc. of Tallahassee, Fla.

'We wanted something that was completely independent of the public switched telephone network or any other infrastructure such as a tower,' Purcaro said.

Nor does the satellite network, dubbed MedSat, rely on the electric power grid, which failed during the Northeast blackout last August.

MedSat needs only a line-of-sight path to the sky, where there are backup satellites.

Each hospital or emergency facility using MedSat must have a small satellite dish on the roof. Purcaro described the end-user setup as 'basically a phone jack, a plug-in headset and a telephone handset.'

The users got about two hours of training. One MedSat feature that took some getting used to was the short delay between hitting send and relaying the call. 'It takes a second or two to transmit a message from the surface of the Earth to a satellite,' Purcaro said.

Users learned how to set up 'talk groups' to communicate with every hospital in the state at a press of a button.

Over a year's time, the department rolled out the satellite network to 42 users at 32 acute-care hospitals, the state's emergency operations center and the Connecticut Hospital Association.

The communications system is part of a larger plan for bioterrorism response, Purcaro said. The state unveiled a plan in April 2002 to establish centers of excellence for preparedness and response at Yale New Haven and Hartford hospitals, Purcaro said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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