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VoIP to the Rescue for Emergency Responders

New systems provide seamless communication for first responders and emergency services.

Two new services -one for municipalities trying to unite disparate radio systems and another for communication in large-scale disasters-use VoIP as the unifying technology connecting the other elements of the system.

GlobalTel IP, a provider of group communications for mission-critical services, is planning to launch X-Stream Access, a managed service for emergency communication interoperability.

X-Stream Access is notable because it will include WAVE, the most widely deployed hosted group-communication software. This will enable smaller municipalities and counties to use the sophisticated features of the software service without having to deploy and maintain the complex software themselves.

WAVE enables many different emergency communication systems, such as radios (operating at many different frequencies, such as the UHF and VHF bands), traditional analog phone systems, IP phone systems, PCs, PDAs and industry-specific proprietary devices, to interoperate. Voice from each source is converted to VoIP, using small gateways placed at a strategic location for each system, and then connected under the control of WAVE. 

"Doesn't matter what frequency they are on. As long as they have one of our gateways, we can make them communicate with each other," says Larry Reid, president & CEO of GlobalTel IP. "Chances are that, if anything is not on our list, we could make it talk to all those other devices out there." 

WAVE, a product developed by Twisted Pair, includes other features important to emergency services such as high levels of security and access control with varying levels of permissions for access to the system, the ability to support thousands of user groups, support for push-to-talk communication among disparate devices and an intuitive management interface. 

One driver for GlobalTel IP to offer WAVE on a hosted basis is the availability of grants from Homeland Security under a program called SAFECOM. Smaller organizations have been at a disadvantage in applying for these grants, which require interoperable communication, because of the expense of setting up interoperable systems. With X-Stream Access they can enable WAVE interoperability for as little as $1000 a month, says Reid. 

Mobile to VoIP for Disaster Relief

Rivada Networks (http://www.rivada.com/) also brings together multiple communication technologies using VoIP, but the company focuses on using existing and widely deployed wireless technology, namely CDMA, for much of the communication during emergency situations.

Bob Duncan, senior vice president for government services with Rivada was Coast Guard district commander during Katrina. He observed his junior officers using their personal Blackberries and other handhelds to communicate, not just with voice, but also with pictures and text messaging. "I thought, what a good idea! We can take advantage of what is there already." 

Rivada took stock of the available technologies and opted for CDMA because it provided enough bandwidth for voice and data, especially with EVDO, which soon will be part of the Rivada System. Rivada can use existing CDMA infrastructure or can provide portable CDMA transmitters if infrastructure has been damaged. The company has agreements with wireless operators to use their existing spectrum for emergency services.

"The real novelty is to tie everything together in a way that has not been done before," says Duncan. "We are taking all the investment in cellular networks and putting it at the disposal of emergency providers." 

The VoIP backbone of the system is provided by Cisco, which links all the various wireless and wired technologies after they are converted to VoIP.

For radio interoperability Rivada deploys a unit by Raytheon, called the ACU-1000, that can bring in signals from multiple incompatible radio systems. 

"We tie in all the LMR (land mobile radio) systems, all the walkie-talkies that are out there because you can't leave those out. We had 76 different police units show up for Katrina, and only three had LMRs compatible with state police."

Rivada's portable units resemble a component home-entertainment system and can be mounted in a variety of environments, ranging from Humvees to FEMA trailers. After Katrina one unit was lifted by helicopter to the top of a large building in New Orleans to provide mobile communication. The portable units also include a satellite dish to establish communication where no landlines are available.

More and more, Duncan says, those in charge, such as state governors or even the president, want a real-time view of what's going on. "I don't have to know how CDMA works as long as I can do what I have to do and talk to the president, because they want to know what going on in the Ninth Ward or on the fire line."