Communicating in emergencies

February 19, 2004, vol.29, no.4
By Marianne Meadahl

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A specialized vehicle capable of rapidly deploying advanced communications to remote regions of B.C. and Alberta in the wake of forest fires, floods and other disasters is being created at SFU.

The $500,000 project is being funded by Western Economic Diversification (WED) and will be carried out by the SFU's Telematics Research Laboratory (TRL).

Leading the project from SFU's school of communication are lab director and professor Peter Anderson and adjunct professor Stephen Braham. Their goal is to build an advanced mobile emergency communications (AMEC) prototype for providing and relaying critical communications.

The need for the vehicle became evident during B.C.'s forest fires in 2003, says Anderson, noting how traditional communication systems were seriously compromised by fire, resulting in the loss of crucial communication links to isolated communities.

“Throughout the fire season, local emergency operations were hampered by the lack of reliable backup mobile communications,” recalls Anderson, who worked with the provincial emergency communication team in Kamloops for weeks during the height of the disaster.

“This vehicle could reduce loss of life, property and industry down time through improved response capabilities. At the same time it can give us a better understanding of how to integrate advanced communications with existing processes and infrastructure.”

The heart of the vehicle will be a set of terrestrial radio and satellite communications systems that will enable the vehicle to relay internet, video, and voice communications. It will enable the instantaneous exchange of information by field personnel and those in operation posts or support centres on or off site. It can also provide backup or augmented communications support for community or agency centres.

Data transmission speed will be maximized through the incorporation of satellite Ku-Band emergency communications, which will be upgradeable to Ka-Band capabilities, soon to be commissioned by Telesat Canada.

Ka-Band communications allow for higher data rates for a given size of satellite dish, and will be essential for the future high-speed multimedia satellite communications industry. TRL currently operates a fixed Ku-Band satellite terminal on campus, as well as an additional cluster of satellite ground stations in neighbouring Discovery Park.

The unit will also serve as a mobile lab for enabling a wide-range of field and emergency communications activities that require advanced network access. Anderson expects that will help to make Western Canada a leader in broadband mobile emergency and field research communications.

The project provides a unique opportunity to develop an entirely new generation of emergency communications, explains Anderson. “There are virtually no multi-purpose mobile emergency communications vehicles that exist that incorporate a strong, wide-band satellite capability,” he says. He adds that the vehicle could have significant commercial spin-off capabilities, not only for public safety purposes but also for industrial applications, such as gas utilities.

Anderson has developed new virtual emergency management information systems for the United Nations, NATO and a number of scientific disaster management organizations.

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