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Building Mobile Emergency Response Vehicles with Satellite Connectivity:
What to Know

by David Myers and Jeffrey Carl

The power of mobile satellite communications offers a tremendous opportunity for incident management, disaster recovery and first responder organizations.

These groups can now build out a simple transportable vehicle-mounted “command post” infrastructure that will provide broadband “converged communications” (Internet, intranet, voice, fax and video) almost anywhere in the United States – and can be deployed in five minutes or less.

Satellite is the near-universal choice for the broadband communications “backhaul” link to these vehicles since it is rapidly deployable, available anywhere with a clear view of the southern sky, and completely independent of the local telecom infrastructure. These systems are typically based on VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal, a twoway broadband wireless link) satellite data services.

These Mobile Satellite Communications Centers (MSCCs) are designed to move to a crisis site, deploy quickly, and provide a communications infrastructure for on-site personnel for the duration of an incident. Additionally, numerous federal grants and programs are being offered that can assist with the purchase of a MSCC interoperable emergency response mobile communications infrastructure.

But like any new technology, users must educate themselves on their options and capabilities in order to avoid painful, mission-disruptive (and expensive) incompatibilities, limitations or failures. This article is intended to provide a helpful resource for best practices information.

The Basics
Your first step should be to identify your communications needs based on your mission. MSCC vehicles are best suited to rapid-response deployments where voice, video and data communications are needed to support 1-20 users (bandwidth of 1-5 Mbps for all data). These units are best for situations where rapid deployment is essential and expected use period is up to 48 hours (semi-permanent command posts should be deployed for longer-use situations.)

A basic MSCC needs to be fitted with a satellite WAN (Wide Area Network) communications system; LAN (Local Area Network) communications gear that may include phones, LMR (Land Mobile Radio) units, laptop PCs, and video or digital still cameras; and power generators to run the equipment at the deployment site. The satellite WAN link is typically built around an “auto-acquisition” antenna mounted to the roof of the vehicle and equipped with servomotors that allow it to automatically point itself at its assigned satellite and activate the network link.

For budgetary purposes, depending on configuration, a MSCC (including vehicle and communications gear) can cost between $50,000 and $150,000 to build. For ongoing use, monthly communications service charges between $150 and $1500 can be expected in addition to vehicle fuel, maintenance and operations expenses.

Vehicle Tips
MSCCs are available to rent from many companies, which provide these vehicles on demand in case of emergency. However, many emergency response organizations prefer to own their vehicles, allowing total control and instantaneous response.

Any vehicle of SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle) size or larger is a potential candidate for a MSCC. The “coolestlooking” vehicles like Hummers and Jeeps often seen as demo units are not always the best choice for extended duration deployments, however; a large van-like vehicle such as the Dodge Sprinter (www.dodge.com/sprinter) may be a better fit.

Since an auto-acquire antenna weighs between 150-250 lbs. (depending on the manufacturer and size of the dish), sunroofs are inadvisable and the vehicle roof may need to be reinforced to carry the weight. Holes may also need to be drilled as conduit for cables (a satellite antenna will require two coaxial cables to run to the satellite modem inside the vehicle).

MSCC vehicles should be outfitted with external power umbilicals to accept outside power, with Alternating Current (AC) power inverters. The vehicle may also require augmented AC capacity in its internal wiring.

Communications Solution Tips
MSCC vehicle communications gear can be as simple as a satellite antenna and modem connected to a PC or VoIP phone, or can be as sophisticated as a complete integrated kit designed specifically for emergency response deployment such as the Cisco iComm (www.spacenet.com/cisco/) or the Pac- Star 5500 series (www.pacstar.com).

While the first thing that most people think of when building a MSCC system is the vehicle or the antenna, the choice of service provider is even more critical. The satellite communications provider for a MSCC is an essential link in the emergency response chain: if your network isn’t operating when you need it, then the mission is a failure. When selecting a provider, look for a network operator that has multiple geographically distributed teleport facilities and a national infrastructure so that regional disaster conditions will not impair your ability to communicate.

Choose a satellite system designed for “industrial-grade” use; common “consumer” satellite systems are inexpensive but are not built to support heavy data usage (such as VoIP or video) and mission-critical availability. Many satellite providers offer emergency response-tailored satellite services., such as Agiosat (www.agiosat.com), SkyPort (www.skyportglobal.com) and Spacenet (www.spacenet.com).

Putting It All Together
Integrating your communications system requires planning. Equipment in the MSCC should be firmly secured and shock-mounted with rubber grommets so that it is not damaged in transit. Grounding for the equipment should also be provided (through an external metal ground cable) to prevent damage to sensitive electronics.

The vehicle power generator should be equipped for extended usage. An electronics-friendly fire extinguisher system (such as Halon) should be equipped in the vehicle, as well as a carbon monoxide detector if the generator is in extended use. Field spares on vital equipment are a must for both the vehicle and the satellite system.

You can build a vehicle yourself if you have the necessary expertise, or you can contract construction and integration to one of the many firms dedicated to building emergency response vehicles. These include SciTerra (www.sciterra.com), Wolf Coach (www.wolfcoach.com), Frontline Communications (www.frontlinecomm.com) and LDV (www.ldvusa.com).

About the Author
David Myers is Senior Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Development for Spacenet Inc., one of the nation’s largest and most experienced providers of satellite communications for enterprises and government. He can be reached at 703-848-1200 or david.myers@spacenet.com.

Jeffrey Carl is Director of Marketing for Spacenet. He can be reached at 703-848-1068 or jeff.carl@spacenet.com.

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