Regional safety communications system taking shape

Washington state's Military Department Emergency Management Division has launched a satellite-based mutual aid radio talkgroup that will provide interoperable emergency communications for state, federal and local responders in Washington, Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming.

Service for the NorthWest Satellite Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroup (NWSMART) is being provided by Mobile Satellite Ventures of Reston, Va. The service will provide interoperable push-to-talk radio and satellite phone service throughout the region that will not be affected by local terrestrial conditions.

NWSMART is the fifth in a planned network of nine regional locally managed talkgroups being set up throughout the country.

Participants in any group also would be able to communicate with members of other regional talkgroups being set up with the Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) service, as well as with a national pilot system being set up by the Homeland Security Department's National Communications System.

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

The talkgroup network is a dedicated system for authorized users, who will use equipment from MSV. The groundset used for satellite calls consists of a 9-inch automatic tracking L-band antenna and a handset, both connected to a transceiver somewhat larger than a laptop computer. It is not a handheld device, but is portable and can be installed in a vehicle or carried in an emergency go-kit.

The groundset connects with one of two MSV satellites in geosynchronous orbit over North America, which act much like a repeater for a traditional radio in push-to-talk mode. The signal is relayed from the satellite to a MSV ground station. There the network identifies the radio and the talkgroup being used, looks for other talkgroup members who are on the air, summons their radios to a common frequency, then sends the signal back up to a satellite and down again to the radios of the talk group.

The groundset also can be used to make satellite phone calls to other MSV users that do not go over the Public Switched Telephone Network, although phone calls also can be made to non-MSV phones by being transferred to the PSTN for delivery.

'We expect the entire system of nine regional talkgroups to be up within four to six weeks,' said MSV spokesman Tom Surface.

Regional multistate talkgroups already established are:
  • Central United States Earthquake Consortium: A partnership of the federal government and eight states most affected by earthquakes in the central U.S., Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.
  • Mid-West Satellite Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroup: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
  • Gulf States Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroup: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
  • Mid-Atlantic States Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroups: Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

'The Gulf States group saw a lot of activity' during Hurricane Gustav, Surface said.

Talkgroups are being established for the Southwest, West, Southeast and Northeast. The regions will have overlapping coverage to facilitate communications during emergencies. Because the talkgroups require special satellite communications sets they will not replace traditional communications systems used by public safety agencies for day-to-day work, such as terrestrial radio and telephone. But the satellite talkgroups will have the advantage of not being affected by conditions that can destroy or overload wireline and cellular phone systems during emergencies, and of being interoperable among agencies, unlike many traditional radio systems.

The National Communications System in May announced a three-year pilot program with MSV to give key government and industry facilities access to advanced satellite communications during emergencies. Through the Satellite Priority Service, DHS will provide funds for one groundset each to 65 critical facilities with three years of service. Participating facilities now are being identified by NCS and probably will include emergency operations centers for federal, state and local government agencies as well as critical infrastructure providers.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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