9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mission Critical: Wireless Technology Enables Emergency Communications

Taken from 911 Magazine, June/July 2009
Written by Aviv Ronai, Chief Marketing Officer, Ceragon Networks, with over 15 years of experience in the telecommunications industry.

Reliable communications is essential to the effective coordination and implementation of daily decisions made by public safety agencies and during a crisis event. The goal of any public safety agency is to protect and serve the community from significant damage or harm. And in the face of disaster or simply extensive use of the network, many emergency communications systems have proved insufficient to meet the needs and expectations of the community.

With growing awareness of the need for reliable communications, public safety organizations are turning to wireless solutions for the everyday communications needs of municipality, state, or law enforcement agencies. Wireless technology provides a viable, cost-effective resource for disaster planning - and is playing an increasingly important role in tackling today's public safety issues. As wireless technology has matured, it has become a reliable solution for both day-to-day use and emergency backup.

Emergency responders can use wireless technology as a less expensive, more immediate solution to efficient emergency communications situations, or even daily 911 tasks. The importance of a wireless infrastructure has been widely considered by public safety agencies. More specifically, point-to-point microwave solutions are being used to dramatically improve emergency response efforts and provide reliable voice and data communications to police, fire, emergency medical, and other necessary emergency response personnel. They provide essential connectivity to enable on-demand and real-time coordination of first responders. The integration of this technology to a communications network allows for interoperability among all users, which is critical for emergency response personnel.

Being that wireless technology - and more specifically, point-to-point microwave technology - is an essential solution for improving public safety communications by emergency service organizations, the examples of how this technology can be utilized are endless. The cities of Houston, Kansas City, New Orleans, and New York provide tremendous examples of how to best utilize wireless communications not only to improve day-to-day communications, but also to provide a dedicated network for emergency situations, disaster planning and recovery, and traffic control.

Wireless Technology In Action

For the city of Houston, public safety officials decided to deploy a wireless infrastructure to increase the capacity of the city's municipal network. The high capacity wireless systems provide a disaster-proof communications network in order to prepare for a crisis situation in advance and improve homeland security. In Houston, they now have a secure wireless network ring around the city, ensuring the operation of its critical infrastructure and services for police, fire, traffic, or other municipal departments.

No one can blame Houston city officials for being too careful. Experience has taught us that you can never be too prepared. When the city of New York was struck with a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, its civil communications network completely collapsed. Unfortunately, that same network also handled the city's public safety communication.

When New York's communications network failed, thousands of fire fighter, police, and emergency medical personnel were left in the field with no form of communication except their short-range radios. Communication with the city's mission control was lost. Although the city was well-equipped with some of the emergency response crews, it was in need of an independent network that would enable fully interoperable data communications so that critical information could be shared among multiple city agencies.

To ensure that a similar communications failure did not happen again, the city of New York decided to construct an independent, high-capacity public safety network to guarantee fast, reliable emergency communications - for basic needs or critical emergency situations. The city chose a wireless microwave transport solution that relies on a network of high-capacity point-to-point links. This new network now ensures that data could quickly transfer between operation centers and first responders at on-scene emergencies. Today, there is increased coordination across all public safety agencies as well as clearer lines of communication in the field.

Case In Point: Hurricane Katrina

Another form of crisis communications in action is during a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina brought home harsh realities in 2005 that crisis events can inflict devastating damage on a specific region's communications infrastructure. During this storm, floods knocked out virtually every form of communications in the city of New Orleans - in particular the communication path between pump sites and the city's mission control center.

Maintaining constant communication is critical for first responders to efficiently manage and respond to daily events, natural disasters or emergency situations. The type of communications failure that the city of New Orleans experienced left its high-tech water control system completely paralyzed.

Recognizing the need to take preventative measures against another communications failure caused by any future crisis, the city of New Orleans decided to implement a brand new network. Once again, city officials looked to advanced wireless solutions based on their reliability and cost-effectiveness.

At the time Hurricane Katrina hit, New Orleans was using a copper and fiber-based communications network for voice and data transmission between the city's mission control centers and pump sites. Due to the excessive winds and floods the city experienced - and without any back-up facilities - this network was completely destroyed. By choosing a wireless high-capacity microwave solution, the city saved its engineers a major re-wiring effort that would have otherwise been required. Wireless indeed proved to be a quicker and less expensive alternative. Typically, a wireless communication link takes only several hours to deploy, and has a 12-18 month return on investment. And just as important - no compromise on capacity or availability was necessary by moving from wires to wireless.

An entire network for voice and high-speed data traffic was completed in only a few short weeks. The extra time was mostly taken to reinforce the foundations of the communications towers to allow them to withstand category five winds. Additionally, the point-to-point microwave solution that was deployed is easily upgradeable for future bandwidth needs, so the city of New Orleans can enjoy its benefits for many years to come.

For this specific installation, the city of New Orleans chose Ceragon Networks' wireless high-capacity microwave solution, the FibeAir IP-MAX. Deep South Communications, a regional microwave integrator based in Baton Rouge (LA) took charge of the deployment while providing the turnkey solutions for the microwave and network integration. Ceragon's wireless radio technology was mounted on towers to support communications between the Emergency Operation Center, Outfall Control Structures and the associated Pumping Stations Center in New Orleans. Ceragon's solution enabled primary communications between the outfall canals and back-up communications along the canals.

Ceragon's FibeAir IP-MAX wireless radios provide continuous communicatons of mission essential data for use during tropical storms and major hurricane events. The solution supplies a system designed to continue uninterruped communications even during extreme weather conditions. Engineers can talk with on-site personnel and share information gathered at their sites around town in real-time and under any conditions.

By installing wireless radios the city of New Orleans now provides continuous communications of mission-critical data for use during a crisis event.

Point-To-Point Microwave Gets Green Light

Wireless technology is also very useful for public safety communications beyond just disaster situations. Kansas City for example deployed a high-capacity microwave backhaul solution as part of its Operation Green Light traffic management program - a regional initiative for reducing traffic congestion and vehicle emissions.

With 800 Mbps over-the-air capacity, the solution provided Kansas City with a wireless backbone that enabled improved coordination of traffic signals on major routes throughout the city. It also provided ample headroom for introducing additional public safety services in the future with no need to upgrade the existing network.

The cases of Houston, New York, New Orleans, and Kansas City are just a few examples of real-life situations in which high-capacity wireless solutions can help prepare for local or national emergencies. Providing an open channel for first responders, maintaining constant flow of voice and critical data under any weather condition, or simply improving day-to-day operations; wireless technologies helps to make everyday tasks more efficient and easier to manage.

Adding Wireless To Public Safety Networks

As the insufficiencies in emergency communications have been dramatically demonstrated in recent years, deploying wireless communications system should be among the first priorities for every emergency response situation. Public safety agencies cannot coordinate disaster relief efforts unless they can communicate with each other, which is why it is important that the emergency response community has access to effective technology.

When considering wireless communications for public safety and emergency response networks, below are a few tips:
  1. Construct an independent wireless network to guarantee fast, reliable emergency communications rather than being dependent on other communications networks that can be overloaded during an emergency.
  2. Installing high-capacity microwave solutions provide continuous communications of mission-critical data for use during a crisis event.
  3. Ensure the wireless technology is high-capacity so that the network can support an increase in communications traffic, including voice and data that can occur on a regular basis or during emergency situations.

As mentioned in the examples above, reliable emergency communications is critical for any city's public safety officials as well as its residents. Whether it's preparing for, preventing, or recovering from a crisis situation, it can be challenging when using conventional communications tools. When faced with an emergency situation, every second of response time counts - and first responders need to have immediate and reliable communications channels. The goal of wireless technology in any crisis situation is to ensure that emergency communications are handled in a way that guarantees public safety and allows first responders to do their jobs quickly and effectively. Wireless technology seals the gaps and provides unmatched connectivity to first responders, enabling emergency response personnel to focus on community safety instead of their communications devices.

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