The technology advances that have made computers thinner, cell phones smaller and MP3 players barely bigger than a matchbook have also dramatically reduced the size and weight of today’s satellite phones. Satellite phones are more portable and more versatile than ever before and, therefore, are ideal for use in situations that demand reliable communications. Today’s satellite phones are no longer exotic devices regarded with intimidation. Rather they have become a staple for anyone who recognizes the critical nature of reliable communications when faced with managing a wide array of unforeseen events.
New Satellite Phone models are highly portable, have both voice and data, and many provide internet access. More importantly, they offer distinct advantages over land lines and cell phones in certain circumstances because Satellite Phone service relies on satellites orbiting Earth. There is little terrestrial infrastructure to be damaged in a disaster. Because satellite phones work when land lines and cell phones fail, they are increasingly relied on by emergency responders.
Satellite phones in Emergency Preparedness:
Satellite phones are ideal for reliable communications in unforeseen events and play a critical role in each of the four phases of Emergency Management that include Preparedness, Response Recovery and Mitigation. FEMA says an emergency operations plan ‘describes how people and property will be protected in an emergency or disaster.’ Emergency preparedness begins at the local level. The State provides assistance and seeks federal involvement if necessary.
An essential part of planning is to secure the necessary personnel and equipment. This is essential in communications. Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) director Tom Ridge said in 2002:
‘Think about the first responders. They cannot communicate over their radio systems during a crisis. If they can’t do that — that was one of the challenges that some of these fire engine companies had and these emergency responders had at the World Trade Center — then they’re not going to be able to use whatever other new equipment we give them or training that we provide for them. One answer might be the type of satellite cell phone technology that was used during the Olympics.’
Had this advice been more fully implemented, some of the difficulties responding to Hurricane Katrina might have been avoided. It was estimated that three million telephone lines were knocked out and more than 1,000 cell towers were rendered inoperable. Additionally, nearly forty 911 call centers had no phone service and up to 20,000 calls failed to go through the day after the storm, as relatives sought to confirm the safety of loved ones. Communications problems persisted for weeks.
Waiting until other phone networks and communication systems fail while in the middle of a crisis is not the time to secure satellite phones. Oftentimes, it is impossible to have resources delivered timely to response personnel in an affected area due to hazardous weather conditions. Additionally, proper planning dictates that emergency personnel need to be trained in their use prior to an event.
Satellite Phones and Recovery:
The public makes little distinction between government’s performance during the crisis and its handling of difficulties people face when immediate danger is past. FEMA Director R. David Paulison told Congress a better recovery effort involves being more pro-active before the next disaster. He is equipping reconnaissance teams with satellite phones and satellite video equipment to improve situational awareness.
Paulison also wants GPS tracking devices in relief supply trucks. Satellite phones are frequently used this way, and as a highly reliable communication tool for truck drivers. Along the Alaska oil pipeline, satellite phones are used to notify authorities if a truck is hijacked. The GPS capable-device shows authorities precisely where the truck the perpetrators stole can be apprehended, unaware they are being monitored.
Satellite Phones and Mitigation:
Limiting the impact of catastrophic events is mitigation. FEMA shares mitigation best practices widely to help others develop their own mitigation strategies. One case study shows that Louisiana Heart Hospital, since Katrina, has supplemented its communications capabilities with satellite phones and data transmission. According to Michelle Hays, the hospital’s chief financial officer, during and after the hurricane, ‘There were no land lines, no cell phones, no email, no form of communication with the outside world.’ To prevent future interruptions, the hospital has purchased a satellite phone and a satellite system enabling email and voice capability via computer. Other hospitals are opting for satellite phone networks, including 76 public hospitals in Massachusetts.
The Satellite Phone Solution:
The case for including satellite phones in disaster preparedness is both bolstered by incidents where other communications technologies have failed and with success stories where satellite phones enabled responders to carry out critical missions. An event does not need to be the magnitude of a Hurricane Katrina for satellite phones to play an important role. Localized events can be incredibly disruptive. In 2005, a long distance switching station in Manchester, NH flooded, cutting off all landline service throughout the Northeast. Although there was no visible catastrophe and thus no national media sensation, there was an incredible amount of disruption to a wide array of businesses, police, fire and town, city and even state government.
Satellite phones have been prescribed for years as part of any emergency preparedness plan. As with car or health insurance, they may be used infrequently but they protect against catastrophe. Responsible government officials understand that an investment is required in satellite phone technology today so that when needed, they can play the critical role that will save lives in all phases of the Emergency Management process.