How to buy EMS satellite communications
By Greg Friese
Major incidents continue to teach EMS professionals and other emergency responders about the importance of reliable and redundant communication systems. Mobile phone lines may be overwhelmed by citizen calls or even overridden by high priority emergency responder-related communications. Radio signals may become unreliable if infrastructure, like communication towers or dispatch centers, is disabled or damaged. If you are purchasing a satellite communications hardware and service for your EMS agency, you first need to determine the type of system that you need. Do you need a handheld-based satellite communication system or a very small aperture telecommunications (VSAT)?
The functionality of handheld satellite communication is limited by contention, which Jon Douglas, Director of Marketing Communications for Spacenet, describes as "the number of users in the same geographic area trying to use the same network." During a disaster, EMS users will be competing for access with other emergency responders, emergency government, and media satellite communications users. Douglas summarized the issue by saying, "the bigger the emergency, the less people can get on the network."
The alternative to a handheld satellite communication system is the VSAT which uses a small satellite dish hooked up to an auto acquiring antenna. Users can purchase different plans based on the amount of contention they are willing to accept — "highly contended or uncontended." VSAT gives users an option that guarantees access. For more about VSAT, read this case study from the Missouri Department of Transportation.
In general here are seven important factors to consider when buying satellite communications:
1. The obvious number one consideration is reliability. For most EMS agencies, satellite communications would serve a back-up role to mobile phone and radio communications. A satellite communications system needs to be ready when you need it — after normal equipment has failed.
2. Ease of use is always important for equipment that is rarely or infrequently used. Satellite communications should come packaged with easy to deploy instructions and the more similarities to mobile phone operations, the better for most non-tech savvy users.
3. Determine and test the data transfer speed for both uploading and downloading different types of media including voice, video, and images. Field personnel could use satellite communications to video conditions in remote incident areas and transfer that video to the incident command post or command physician. The rapid transmission of that data could influence incident objectives and resource deployment.
4. Flexibility that allows administrators to prioritize the users and data transmitted by the system during a disaster or major incident.
5. Satellite communications, again most likely to be used during a major incident, should be transmitted securely using a data encryption process that protects transmission data.
6. Durability is important for storage of the equipment and at the actual time of use. A satellite communication handset may spend 99 percent of its time stored in a cabinet and then only be used in austere conditions of heat, cold, humidity, and high air particulates.
7. Battery longevity and ability to recharge or replace batteries quickly is a final consideration. Longevity can be measured in talk time, standby time, and data transfer time. Match longevity features with your predicted needs.
Finally, determine if you need a satellite communication system that has redundancy allowing the same equipment to store data in the absence of a signal or securely transmit data over 3G, WiFi, or digital radio frequencies.
Due to the likely high initial cost, ongoing service fees, and replacement costs, a decision to purchase satellite communications should involve all of the emergency response agencies in a city, region, or state that will use the system. You need to make sure you have someone to communicate with before you buy the system.
Thanks to @scottmcleod for helping compile this list of considerations for satellite communications.
What else should be considered when purchasing satellite communications? Any other suggestions? Anything we missed in the list above? Leave a comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your feedback.