How IP networks helped NJ crews meet Sandy head-on

Response teams in Bergen County, N.J., used interoperable IP connectivity to link a variety of radio systems during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy.

Bergen County in the northeast corner of New Jersey is the state’s most populous county and home to MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands Sports Complex where the New York Jets and Giants play. It was pummeled by Hurricane Irene in 2011 and again by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

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“In these incidents communication is key,” said Justin R. Lahullier, assistant chief of the East Rutherford Fire Department. “If you don’t have communications, things can go bad really quick.”

Communication is hampered, however, by homegrown radio systems used by different departments in the towns throughout the county. Some operate in the UHF range, some in VHF, some are digital and some analog. The fire departments and ambulance services have mutual aid agreements, but “it’s always been a challenge to have interoperability,” Lahullier said.

In late 2011, emergency responders in the borough of East Rutherford began using the Mutualink IP gateway system to link their radio and telephone systems, creating secure Virtual Private Networks on the fly across department and jurisdictional boundaries that let individuals in participating departments talk to each other regardless of the type of equipment being used.

“Our first real test of that was Hurricane Irene,” Lahullier said, adding, “It worked really well.” Part of the advance planning for Sandy, it was again put into use to coordinate activities across departments. “It’s become the backbone of our communications during these incidents,” he said.

The advantage of the IP gateway system is that it allows any-to-any communications without requiring updates or replacements to existing equipment.

“Once it’s on the network, it’s irrelevant what device you are on; they can all talk together,” said Mutualink CEO Mark Hatten. Because it is Internet Protocol, it does not matter what type of traffic is being carried — voice, video, images or data. Bits are bits on IP.

As a result, East Rutherford and county agencies were able to communicate via radio and telephone regardless of the type of systems used locally when the power went out and the Hackensack and Passaic rivers began to flood during Sandy.

“Everything ran a whole lot smoother having that system in place,” Lahullier said. “We were all on the same plan, we knew what each other was doing and we had more accurate information.”

Implementation of the Mutualink system was funded through a 2010 federal grant of $500,000 to Bergen County. When the search for a system began, the focus was on fire departments and ambulance services. A multidepartment committee was formed to research products and to select a solution. There were two main criteria:

  • Allow mutual aid groups in the county to talk with each other.
  • Ease of use.

The county almost went with a solution from BAE Systems and Mutualink entered the field late in the game, but it fulfilled the two requirements and had the added advantage of being inexpensive.

“It was very user-intuitive and easy to use,” Lahullier said. It allowed individual departments to opt into the system when they were ready at a low price — about $15,000 for a gateway — without having to upgrade or replace existing infrastructure.

Mutualink describes its solution as a peer-to-peer system with no central server that lets devices communicate with each other over an encrypted national virtual network.

“There are no geographic boundaries to the network,” Hatten explained. “Anyone can communicate with anyone else over it.”

At the heart of the system are the gateway appliances, network interface controllers with an IP connection on one side and connections for radio, telephony, video or data on the other. Connections between gateways are made through a terminal running Security-Enhanced Linux, by which a dispatcher or administrator can use a graphical interface to drag channels from different gateways and drop them in an “incident box” to link them. Users set up incidents for specific events and agencies and talk groups are invited to join as needed. Once the channels have been connected to the incident, encrypted IP traffic is routed from one gateway to another over any public or private network, and then converted to the appropriate format for the end users.

Although the interface controllers can accommodate multiple channels, they typically are used for only one channel at a time because of the critical nature of the communications. “We don’t have any customers who want more than that,” Hatten said. If one device fails or is taken offline, only one channel is affected.

Multiple single-channel gateways can be plugged into a network to support different groups and different media.

“The scale depends on how many channels you want to have in use simultaneously,” said Joe Boucher, Mutualink CTO. “It’s a flexible plug-and-play system.”

Gateways in Bergen County are located in the police dispatch center, which also serves fire departments and ambulance services, in the county Emergency Operations Center and in a Mobile Incident Management unit, a van that can be put at the scene of an emergency. The Fire Department was the first adopter of the system and other county agencies have also begun picking it up, Lahullier said. Although the system can support video, text chat and file sharing, Bergen County now is using it only to link radio and telephone traffic.

Because it uses a peer-to-peer model, connections are not limited to county agencies. The State Police also uses Mutualink, and it is a part of routine planning for game day at the Meadowlands, where the MetLife stadium also has a gateway.

“Any time there is a game going on, we open an incident between MetLife Stadium and the State Police operations center,” Lahullier said.

Use is not limited to government agencies, however. The Atlantic City casinos use Mutualink to exchange security video feeds and for the Atlantic City Police Department. This allows real-time sharing of the data, without the owners giving up control of the data source.

“The beauty of the system is that you control your assets,” Lahullier said.

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