Montgomery County Fire Department
Satellite communications prove invaluable in disaster recovery efforts
“Had more facilities been equipped with satellite broadband in secure locations, I believe this would have given more people the opportunity to submit and communicate critical information in a timely manner. Satellite would have made a huge difference.” — Captain Michael Dean, Montgomery County Fire Department
In the aftermath of September 11, the Maryland Urban Search and Rescue Team learned a number of crucial lessons—land-based communications cannot be relied upon in the event of a disaster, real-time information is key to effectively accomplishing tasks, and an Internet connection is vital to staying in touch, not only with the command center, but with information such as news and weather. The communication challenges these first responders encountered aptly displayed to the team that the portable television they used to obtain up-to-date information would no longer be sufficient in a catastrophe. To stay current and be effective, they needed Internet access.
In its search for reliable Internet access, the Maryland Urban Search and Rescue Team turned to Hughes Network Systems (Hughes), the global leader in broadband satellite network solutions and services, and installed a Hughes transportable satellite broadband system based on the Hughes HN7000 broadband satellite modem and mobile antenna technology. Mounting easily on top of vehicles or a transportable platform, the antenna automatically deploys, locks onto the selected satellite, and interfaces with the modem to enable Hughes high-speed broadband Internet service. The decision to install Hughes broadband satellite technology proved invaluable as the team put their new system to the test for the first time as they responded to Hurricane Katrina rescue and recovery efforts.
Katrina Makes Landfall
In a region that is accustomed to hurricanes and tropical storms, when most residents of the Gulf Coast heard that Hurricane Katrina would make landfall on August 29, 2005, they did not see any cause for alarm. Hurricanes had come and gone and the region had learned to adapt. But Hurricane Katrina was no ordinary hurricane. It made landfall boasting winds of over 125 mph, causing widespread damage from New Orleans to Mississippi, and ultimately resulted in the breaking of a series of levees in New Orleans, leaving most of the city flooded. In the aftermath, thousands of citizens were left homeless, food was scarce, and a viable communications network was nonexistent.
The Maryland Urban Search and Rescue team was deployed to New Orleans shortly after the storm hit with a simple mission—to come to the aid of citizens by providing immediate medical and search and recovery assistance for displaced citizens.
The team used their Hughes satellite service primarily to obtain Internet access in order to monitor news and gather information on the affected areas. “The satellite service allowed us to get a broader view of the devastation we were about to encounter in real time,” said Captain Michael Dean of the Montgomery County Fire Department.
Access to real-time information was key, as it allowed the Maryland Search and Rescue team to decide its course of action prior to arriving in New Orleans. “We were able to use the Hughes service en route to the area, so when we touched ground, we knew what our plan of action was. We didn’t waste time searching for televisions or hotspots. We got the information we needed in real time,” said Dean.
The transportable system is unique in that it offered the team complete freedom of mobility. Every time they needed to relocate, the Hughes system could easily compensate for any change in location, orientation, and even a variation in slope—giving them the ability to go online from virtually anywhere in North America, even the water- and storm-ravaged areas of New Orleans. “Having the Hughes transportable satellite system during Katrina gave us the ability to communicate with our administration and chiefs in Maryland,” said Dean. “The areas affected by Katrina had no telephone or cable service to allow us access to the Internet. We used the system to keep our chiefs updated on our activities and the health of our staff, and to contact loved ones at home to let them know everything was okay,” said Dean. In life or death situations, such as Katrina, first responders need real-time information. According to Dean, “if we can’t get information, we can’t do our jobs effectively.”
On the Ground
While in New Orleans, rescue teams from Virginia Beach and other areas got a first-hand look at the technology the Maryland team was using. They opened their connection to allow other teams to enjoy “creature comfort activities” such as accessing email to contact loved ones at home and their command centers and to keep abreast of current events.
Security was never an issue. The Hughes system was equipped with an extra layer of security that prevented any critical information pertaining to the Maryland team’s mission from being broadcast over the Internet. “I like to think we are trendsetters—after our debut in New Orleans, a lot of first responder and rescue teams are starting to come along with satellite,” said Dean.
In the hours, days, and weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the lack of communication was one of South Mississippi’s and New Orleans’ biggest problems for residents and officials. This year, while state and local officials hope there is no repeat of Katrina, they have proactive plans in place for several different forms of communication—just in case. Most of those plans call for “The satellite service allowed us to get a broader view of the devastation we were about to encounter in real time.”
“We didn’t waste time searching for televisions or hotspots. We got the information we needed in real time.”more satellite broadband since the technology doesn’t rely on vulnerable land-based infrastructure. Dean agrees that rapidly deployable satellite broadband is a necessary component of emergency communications preparedness. “Had more facilities been equipped with satellite broadband in secure locations, I believe this would have given more people the opportunity to submit and communicate critical information in a timely manner. Satellite would have made a huge difference,” Dean said.