Earthquake planners create communications network

The Central U.S. Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC), a state and federal partnership for mitigating loss of life and damage from earthquakes, has formed a satellite mutual-aid radio talk group to provide interoperable communications for public safety officials during disasters.

Mobile Satellite Ventures LP (MSV), of Reston, Va., will provide the satellite link and communications hardware. The service will provide interoperable push-to-talk radio and satellite phone service that will not be affected if terrestrial communications infrastructure is knocked out or becomes congested during emergencies.

CUSEC covers an eight-state area that includes the seismically active New Madrid and Wabash Valley seismic zones. It is funded by Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local members in addition to corporate sponsors. Member states are Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.

'The need to have redundancy in communications systems is amplified by the large area of the earthquake threat and the multijurisdictional issues,' said CUSEC Executive Director Jim Wilkinson.

Although California's seismic zones are better known, the New Madrid fault produced three of the most powerful earthquakes in the United States in 1811 and 1812, and it is still the most active seismic zone east of the Rocky Mountains.

'Push-to-talk is incredibly spectrally effective,' said Jim Corry, vice president of government solutions at MSV. 'It requires very little satellite resources to talk to a lot of people.' Push-to-talk traffic also never touches the public switched telephone network that carries terrestrial telephone traffic, and it is not affected by natural disasters.

MSV is a joint venture between Mobile Satellite Ventures LP, owned by SkyTerra Communications Inc., and Mobile Satellite Ventures (Canada) Inc.

The consortium will manage participation in the CUSEC-1 talk group by federal, tribal, state and local public safety officialsin addition to authorized private-sector users. The satellite will act much like a repeater for a traditional radio in push-to-talk mode. The signal is sent from a ground set to one of two MSV satellites in geosynchronous orbit over North America, which relays it to the ground station. There, the network identifies the radio and the talk group being used, looks for other talk group members who are on the air, summons their radios to a common frequency, then sends the signal back up to a satellite and down to the radios of the talk group. The system also can be used to make satellite phone calls.

The ground set used to make calls is mobile but not portable. It consists of a 9-inch automatic tracking L-band antenna and a handset, both connected to a transceiver somewhat larger than a laptop PC.

CUSEC, formed in 1983, is part of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program. In addition to FEMA, federal member agencies include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, Army Corps of Engineers, and the Energy and Transportation departments.

The New Madrid seismic zone extends along the Mississippi River from Alabama and Arkansas to Kentucky and Missouri. Thirty quakes have been recorded in the zone since April, the largest being a 2.8-magnitude quake centered near Dell, Ark., May 9. The most recent was a 1.8 magnitude quake June 8 near Tiptonville, Tenn.

The less-well-known Wabash Valley fault area extends north from the Ohio River along the Indiana and Illinois border. Although not as active as the New Madrid region to the south, it has produced more powerful quakes in recent months. The most powerful recent event was a 5.2 magnitude quake near Mount Carmel, Ill., April 18, which sparked the creation of the Illinois Seismic Safety Task Force. The most recent was a 3.6 magnitude quake June 5 near Allendale, Ill.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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