Where's the Back Up?

By Steve Durante
CEO at Outerlink Global Solutions

What happens when the lights go out?

Everybody starts making phone calls. Trying to get information, find loved ones, or look for answers. The result is an overload on the cell towers exactly at the time when mobile communications is most critical for EMS and First Responders.

Major telecom carriers are set up to handle large volumes of traffic, but generally not all at the same time. During times of disaster and chaos the major communication systems fail or become unreliable. For most people it’s annoying, and perhaps unsettling, to wait a few minutes to talk to your mom, the kids or friends. For others, it may be a matter of life and death.

Since 2001, the first responder community has shown a remarkable ability to react, respond to, and manage chaos in times of disaster. The tools and training these responders have help them save lives and keep the peace. First response vehicles have become mobile command-and-response centers that are designed to deliver rapid support services to the larger population. The reason why these vehicles are capable of achieving such success is due in part to the connected technology that makes the first responder community faster, safer and more accurate during every move they make.

The fundamental flaw that arises during a blackout or disaster is found in the core communications technology plan in the form of fixed infrastructure, or terrestrial communications. This includes towers, electricity, and fixed wire installations that are connected to a wireless network. At the time of a disaster, when communications are needed most, cell towers get overloaded. High precision communication devices are then reduced to a VHF radio and dispatch systems dating back to the 1980’s. This type of fixed infrastructure communication is designed for the masses because it is broad, economical and available most of the time. It is only in the time of overload that first responders run into problems.

In order to fix this problem and maintain efficiency, coordination and control; first responders need to have redundancy in their equipment and communication systems. This can be achieved in the form of satellite communications. Years ago, SatCom systems were only used in the military and seen in movies. Today, satellite communication devices are smaller, lighter, and less expensive.

The problem that arises most when deciding whether or not to acquire a Satellite based back up communications system for first responders is the Need vs. the Cost. How does a private ambulance company, municipality, or law enforcement agency afford and/or justify the cost of connecting their assets with both terrestrial and satellite networks?

The Need for Satellite Based Communications for EMS and First Responders:
Most days, thankfully, are not rooted in disaster allowing terrestrial communications to work flawlessly, with the exception of some minor issues in rural areas. However, there are times when we are struck with disaster, and on those days it is imperative that all training, equipment, and communication devices are working properly to facilitate aid because when disaster strikes and communications fail, lives can be lost.

The Cost for Satellite Based Communications for EMS and First Responders:
The satellite back up plan is exactly what it sounds like, and therefore the pricing reflects its secondary nature. The cost of maintaining a SatCom back-up system that is capable of automatically switching over when the terrestrial link breaks or becomes overloaded can be less than $2.00/day per vehicle. This cost is estimated on a standby basis, and if fully engaged costs will increase.

Evaluating the needs vs. the cost for EMS and First Responders, and making the shift to a SatCom communications network back-up plan could mean the difference between life and death in times of disaster. It is both practical and cost effective to make use of a satellite back up system.. Ninety Five percent of the time the world works efficiently on standard terrestrial networks. However, when disaster does strike, the lights go out and cell towers go on overload. The SatCom communications channel responds accordingly during these times to keep all aspects of emergency response fully engaged. This solution above all else allows first responders to see their objectives clearly, and save lives when needed most.

For More Information on this topic please refer to this informational document published by the FCC, “The First Responders Guide to Satellite Communications” which can be found at: