Home >> July 2008 Edition >> PRIORITY BRIEFING: MSS Offers Disaster Preparedness Support
PRIORITY BRIEFING: MSS Offers Disaster Preparedness Support

Edward Topasna, Program Manager
& Marc LeGare, CEO
Proactive Communications Inc

In the aftermath of natural disasters, military and other first responders often face enormous communication challenges that inhibit their ability to efficiently manage crises. If properly deployed, satellite telecommunication networks are the most effective way to ensure the phone, email, and Internet connectivity necessary to support federal, state and local emergency personnel. These satellite networks have proven to provide a reliable transport mechanism for all types of traffic in environments that are complex and difficult to integrate.

The disaster response scenario is one of the most difficult communication environments in which to operate, for the following reasons:

There is no real equipment standardization policy across the multiple levels of government first responders (aka interoperability). This issue is compounded if the incident location spans two or more state boundaries and if non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also arrive and need to be integrated into the communications architecture.

Second, if the environmental conditions include a damaged communications infrastructure, normal transport methods to establish communications nodes are damaged or non-existent. The dilemma is that the larger the incident, the greater the need for rapidly deployed, widespread, integrated communications capabilities. Satellite telecommunications, if deployed by quickly transporting multiple forms of data streams, has proven to be an effective tool in the Incident Commander’s communications tool kit.

There are two primary factors that make satellite telecommunications an essential tool for Incident Commanders.

Satellite telecommunications links have many features that make them a “jack of all trades”. These include large footprint, rapid reconfigurability, proven network security, and the most important feature — reach-back beyond line of sight to the “safe haven” of an established communications node.

Multiple data types can be turned into IP (Internet Protocol) data streams and sent through this satellite link to reach all intended destinations.

Satellite Capabilities
Satellite networks offer a wide range of capabilities that make them a perfect fit for disaster recovery situations. The large footprint allows regional to national use of network resources. Plus, network providers can access any number of satellites that cover all regions of the U.S. at one time, ensuring no marginalized areas within the network. This means that network providers can have operational customers in one area of the U.S. with one set of requirements, and another set of customers with a different set of requirements in another region, both supported by the same network.

This network can also support communications on the move(COTM) , communications on the halt, and fixed sites. The value to the Incident Commander is that over the duration of the incident, the satellite network can support various forms of satellite links. These links can be constructed for those personnel who must be able to communicate on the move to the incident area through voice over IP (VoIP), video teleconference (VTC), radio over IP (RoIP), camera, and data.

The same network can also support mobile nodes with auto-deploy antennas and a larger link for additive capabilities such as day and night camera, cell phone back haul, and wireless access. This network can support fixed antennas for the small, medium, and large office node until the infrastructure is replaced.

The satellite network is controlled from a central Network Operations Center (NOC). Should a node require greater capacity for duration, the NOC can change the modem option file to create a larger link. The NOC can also engineer “quality of service” files to ensure the node’s priority traffic is transported first before other types of data.

Finally, the network can be secured to the degree required by the customer. In a disaster response scenario, personal, financial and HIPAA information may be transported over the link. Network security measures can be easily deployed, but this requirement should be thought through ahead of time as much as possible.

For example, our company, Proactive Communications, Inc. (PCI), has engineered a vehicle that allows for satellite communications on the move. PCI’s Satellite Platform and Remote Tactical Access Network (SPaRTAN™) provides the Incident Commander the ability to communicate and provide real time information updates over Internet Protocol (IP) to the Rear Operations Center. Communications such as Ku On the Move/Halt, Internet access, voice over IP (VoIP), video teleconferencing (VTC), tactical conference bridge (radio over IP) and real-time video with an unmanned surveillance camera are aggregated at the vehicle/node and transported over commercial satellite/IP to the designated communications center. The PCI SPaRTAN™ also provides the capability of a standalone carrier division multiple access cell base station with the NSA approved TYPE I encryption QSEC 2700 secure cell phone.


The preceding paragraphs describe the flexibility of satellite networks, which provides little to no value to the Incident Commander unless it can reliably transport all the different communications capabilities that could be in use at the remote site(s). This is an interoperability challenge that can be overcome through technology. Devices now exist that turn legacy/analog communications channels into transportable IP data streams. This type of technology is called Everything over IP (EoIP), which enables the Incident Commander to rapidly integrate a large number of communication systems into the satellite pipe for long haul back to the “sanctuary” for reintegration into mainstream communications channels or, just as important, linkage to other nodes in the incident area.

The Department of Defense Interoperability Communications Exercise (DICE) is an annual event sponsored by the Joint Forces Command and conducted by the Joint Interoperability Test Command. DICE is the only exercise dedicated to testing interoperability between systems from the Services, DoD agencies, coalition members and commercial vendors. Networks are developed during DICE that replicate as closely as possible the typical Joint Task Force networks that are in use by operational units on real world missions. Please see the network diagram below from March 2008 DICE.

During the DICE ‘08 exercise, PCI demonstrated that our SPaRTAN™ vehicle was able to interface and communicate with Army North (ARNORTH) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). PCI was able to conduct VTCs, VoIP calls, and email exchange with various Army units, as well as with federal and state emergency agencies.

The following EoIP capabilities were highlighted at the March 2008 DICE event:

The Incident Commander’s Radio Interface permits the connection of 10 different agency radios in an interoperability network, and their division into four independent “talk nets” or “talk groups” using clearly definable rotary switches. The talk group capability provides an Incident Commander with expanded control to separate special teams and agencies into task-specific radio nets. This device provides simple-to-configure, easy-to-operate, cross-band, cross-platform radio interoperability across typically incompatible equipment. It supports all commercial trunking and conventional radios, military radios, satellite phones, cell phones and VoIP connectivity. Based on the design and engineering of all Incident Commanders’ radio interfaces (ICRIs), the ICRI for an emergency operations center can be set up in less than five minutes, creating voice connections without technical assistance, special training or computer interfaces.

Voice over IP
Any standard VoIP call can be transmitted over the satellite link. The engineering challenge is in selecting a digital data stream encoding/decoding device (called a codec) with an appropriate protocol to achieve a low circuit workload of 25 kbps. Other options exist, but these may require larger satellite circuits to handle the same phone call at 180 kbps or higher.

Video Teleconference
VTC enables the Incident Commander to have real time collaboration with any similarly equipped node by providing visual communication and information sharing. The visual information sharing capability allows the conferees to see slide shows, video presentations, or handmade drawings on an electronic white board.

Camera over IP provides a highly interesting capability to the Incident Commander. This type of camera can be controlled by a hand held device at the base node, another remote node, or from the NOC to allow remote viewing that is independent of the ground operator. This is ideally suited for day and night perimeter security, maritime surveillance, and Department of Homeland Security/DoD applications. The camera is based on Forward Looking InfraRed technology developed for the U.S. Military.

Featuring a sleek, integrated pan and tilt design, the camera is capable of continuous 360° panning and a +/- 80° tilt and is able to withstand temperatures ranging from -40° to +60°C. These cameras include an advanced mid-range thermal imager that can see in complete darkness and through a multitude of environmental conditions including smoke, rain, snow, dust, and dense fog.

Access to raw Internet data enables the Incident Commander to surf the web and check email through a virtual private network back to the headquarters, or through an Exchange Server using Microsoft Outlook. Microsoft Outlook Web Access, Yahoo, and Google are other mail services that can be accessed. In addition to Internet data, connectivity provides the Incident Commander the ability to file transfer (FTP) large photos to the Rear Operations Center FTP server.

Continued Challenges
While hardware, software and systems integration may overcome most of the technically based challenges with disaster recovery communications, there are still many hurdles to overcome. The “come as you are” scenario can be planned for in exercises such as DICE, but there always remains the unforeseen complication or unannounced agencies who support the Incident Commander in reality. In these cases, national/industry standards such as Project 25 compliant radios are being developed to help, but implementing a satellite network infrastructure as described in this article gives Incident Commanders the best chance to successfully accomplish their disaster recovery missions.

About the authors

Mr. Edward Topasna was brought into the company as a Program Manager in 2007. After serving for more than 20 years in the U.S. Army as a Signal Warrant Officer, he continued to work with the III Corps, G6 as Network Planner prior to joining PCI. Mr. Topasna served various Signal Battalions, Brigades and Corps G6 staff positions for the U.S. Army worldwide as a Network Controller, Network Technician and Network Planner. Mr. Topasna accompanied the 13th Corps Support Command to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom II (OIF II).

Mr. Marc LeGare became CEO of Proactive Communications, Inc. in 2006 after serving as the company’s Chief Operating Officer and Operations Manager since 2003. Under Mr. LeGare’s leadership as CEO, Proactive Communications has become the first U.S. company to work directly with the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. Prior to joining PCI, Mr. LeGare was Senior Consultant and Operations Manager for Force XXI Battle Command Brigade of TRW/Northrop-Grumman. From 1981 to 1999 Mr. LeGare served various command and staff positions for the U.S. Army worldwide including Battalion Commander from 1999 to 2001. LeGare earned a B.S. from the United States Military Academy, West Point, a Master of Science from the Air Force Institute of Technology and a Master of Military Arts and Sciences from the School of Advanced Military Studies.

About Proactive Communications
Proactive Communications, Inc. (PCI) is a 40 employee IT and Satellite Telecommunications Company with a worldwide footprint. It specializes in creating communications solutions in complex environments. Its telecommunications experience in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003-2005, an invitation to get involved in Katrina Relief effort was offered. From that experience, PCI has branched out to communications solutions for first responders such as the Florida National Guard.