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December 22, 2006
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Law Officer Magazine Tactics, Technology and Training for Today's Law Enforcement Professional
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Tech Beat

Tech Beat

by Steve Ashley

Emergency Communications

What to do when your regular communications go down?

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Who can forget the images out of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast during and following Hurricane Katrina? The havoc caused by the costliest Atlantic hurricane in history was awesome and terrible, stretching for scores of miles, costing billions in damages. The law enforcement community responded to the call for help by sending personnel, vehicles, materials and equipment. Some officers spent weeks in Louisiana and Mississippi, backing up and relieving the exhausted local officers.

In the aftermath, there was much discussion about what went right, what went wrong and ways to lessen the impact of future storms. Several of my friends were down there, and upon their return we discussed their experiences. When I asked them what they believed was the major issue they encountered, the response was unanimous-communications.

They said much of the area was without power, and many of the backup power systems went down as well, some through storm damage and some through over-exertion. Of course, when there's no power, there are no radio or phone communications. And because the damage was so widespread, many of the normal ways in which law enforcement augments itself during disasters were simply unavailable. If you plan on getting help from the next town, what happens when that town is also hit?

The power problems affected the cellular networks, as well. Some departments that relied upon certain carriers found that their networks were down, making their phones useless. Some relief teams borrowed phones from other teams; some teams went without. Because of the difficulty in establishing central communications in the short term, some teams found themselves relying upon inexpensive walkie-talkie or Family Radio Service (FRS) radios. Many of their police portables were of the land-based repeater variety, and were not useful where they were. Of course, relying on the FRS radios worked for short-range deployment among team members, but communications to a central location still proved difficult.

What they needed was a communications method that would allow long distance interaction without reliance upon terrestrial towers and networks. What they needed were satellite phones.

How Satellite Phones Work
A satellite phone is just that, a portable phone that communicates via a network of satellites. When you make a call, the signal travels from your phone to a satellite, which relays it across the network where it's down-linked to a "gateway" on the ground, which then links it into the terrestrial phone system.

It takes roughly 40 satellites to render good coverage around the globe. The cost of building, launching and maintaining such a network remains significant. So much so, in fact, that due to lower than anticipated numbers of subscribers, companies founded to provide satellite phone coverage soon landed in bankruptcy. New investors were found, and today just two companies provide service: Globalstar and Iridium.

Both companies use low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Through the courtesy of All Road Communications of Santee, Calif., I had the opportunity to test both systems.

The Globalstar system uses only 32 satellites to cover the globe, so you can suffer coverage issues when using its equipment. By contrast, Iridium has a network of 62 satellites. In my tests, I found it was faster and easier to get a signal with Iridium, and I was less likely to lose that signal when moving around.

The phones are not much like your little clamshell cell phone. Think of a vintage 1988 cell phone: something slightly smaller than a brick, with a fat antenna that swivels up from the back of the unit. The most common Globalstar handset is the Qualcomm GSP-1600, which uses a modular 7.2v lithium-ion battery pack which snaps onto the back of the phone. This phone does not use a subscriber identity module (SIM), a small memory card that stores subscriber and carrier info, telephone numbers, preferences and more.

The Iridium phone is a Motorola Model 9505a, which is about the same size as the Qualcomm. It uses a 3.6v lithium-ion battery you insert into the back of the phone, keeping the battery contacts more protected. It uses a SIM. The weak point of the Motorola phone's design appears to be the antenna, which at first glance looks like the fat, black antenna of the Qualcomm. However, to use it, you extend it several inches, revealing that the fat, outer part of the antenna sits atop a thinner, more fragile looking lower section. My test unit didn't break, but actual field use might be a different story.

To use the phones, you rotate, extend and point the antennas straight up, then turn on the phone. By the way, you have to be outside, with an unobstructed view of the sky-satellite phones are line-of-sight devices and must be able to "see" the satellite. Forget about using them in a building, unless you have some sort of external antenna.

Satellite phones are on a global network, so you have to dial the country code as part of the phone number. To make a U.S. call you dial "00," then the U.S. code "1," then the number. After about a 30-second wait, your call should go through.

I experienced excellent signal quality with the Iridium phone, and less so with the Globalstar phone. I found that in spite of the instructions, the Iridium antenna did not have to be pointed straight up for a call, while the Globalstar was more likely to lose the signal unless I kept the antenna almost exactly straight up in the air. When I placed both phones down on a table for a few seconds, the Globalstar phone lost the signal. The Iridium never hiccupped.

The United States military makes extensive use of the Iridium system, with a Department of Defense (DoD) gateway located in Hawaii. Iridium phones are also popular with explorers and other individuals who venture into remote parts of the world where cell phone coverage is not available.

Cost remains a significant factor when considering a satellite phone. Purchase price for a Motorola Iridium phone runs around $1,400, while the Globalstar Qualcomm runs about $650. However, most users typically rent the phones because they normally don't need them for long periods of time. Rental costs vary, but usually run in the $30/week range. Per-minute call charges run around $2, although you can buy prepaid packages and get the rate down closer to $1 per minute. Note: There is a fairly involved cost structure that entails different charges for the satellite phone user and the person calling them. That's right-if you direct-dial a satellite phone from your regular or cell phone, the satellite user doesn't burn minutes, but you, as the call originator, will pay from $3-$12 per minute (these are international long-distance rates). Check on rate structures with your vendor in order to avoid these gotchas.

Of course, waiting for a disaster to strike before you try to rent a satellite phone might not be the best plan for a law enforcement agency. You can buy one or two phones and store them, bringing them out only when needed. This is probably the best course of action if you're located in an area particularly susceptible to disasters that could knock out communications. If you go this route, you can probably find a plan that allows you to prepay for a large per-minute bundle (e.g., 500 minutes) that's good for one year. Unused time in your bundle can usually be extended.

It goes without saying that we all hope there is never another disaster like Hurricane Katrina. However, we know there will be other storms and floods, as well as man-made calamities. Having a satellite phone in the closet can be reassuring when the lights go out. Stay safe, and wear your vest.

Steve Ashley is a retired police officer, and an active trainer and risk manager. Contact him at steveashley@ileeta.org

About the author

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