Disaster experts eye satellites for emergency planning

TORONTO – Public authorities will increasingly depend on satellite technology as they manage emergency situations like last week’s terrorist attack on London’s subway system, experts told the World Conference on Disaster Management on Monday.

While satellites have been

used for data capture, telecommunications and navigation during natural catastrophes and military crises for years, vendors at the four-day event said easier-to-use equipment and a growing arsenal of sophisticated applications are opening up a range of emergency services. These not only include the ability to assess the damage caused in a disaster but to forecast and prevent future emergencies, they said.

“This is a maturing industry, but I mean maturing in a good way,” said Ed Wright, sales vice-president for Bedminister, N.J.-based satellite equipment maker Loral Skynet during a panel discussion. “It used to be that in an emergency situation you would have to take a satellite engineer out with you to get what you need. That’s no longer the case.”

Wright noted the increased presence of other satellite-based service firms at the conference this year, adding that colleagues in the wireless industry used to be surprised to see him show up in the past. “They would ask, ‘Why are you here?’” he said. “But you’re going to see a lot of the technologies we’re talking about being used when we get into situations like the one in London last week.”

Ken Miller, president of Globecomm Systems Inc. in Hauppauge, N.Y., agreed.  Globecomm offers a number of Internet, video and public phone services it can run with round-the-clock support from its network operations centre. This is crucial, he said, because emergency management departments like the one in London may shut down cell phone networks amid a terrorist attack.

“They want to make sure the cell phone can’t be used to detonate any other bombs,” he said. “That’s great, but then where are your emergency communications?”

Globecomm demonstrated its satellite communications systems in April for the Nassau County Office of Emergency Management’s Homeland Security exercise and evaluation program, in New York state, during an event which simulated a chemical spill, Miller said. The system includes Globecomm’s AutoExplorer or Fly Away satellite terminals along with a micro cell wireless bay station and offers connectivity at the push of a button.

“Our concept of ‘operations’ has changed,” Miller said. “This is something where the local police can use it, the IT person can use it, anyone can use it.”

Optical satellites operate in a manner similar to digital cameras, while radar satellites collect images that can penetrate through cloud cover, said William Jeffries, chief technical officer at RADARSAT International (RSI). The latter are becoming a very useful tool for disaster recovery teams to create what he called damage assessment maps. RSI satellites were able to monitor the entire coastline in the days following the tsunami that hit southeast Asia late last year, for example. They have also been deployed to track the delineation of flooding after a hurricane, or the deformation of ground surface associated with oil abstraction that could increase pressure on fault lines in earthquake-prone areas.

Jeffries said these satellite images could help emergency management officials analyze trends that lead to disasters, though that may be only the first step. “We need the ability to absorb all this information and get it to the people who need it quickly.”

RSI’s development group, along with Versatile Mobile Systems and Bangladesh’s Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) have designed and are implementing an Environmental Monitoring Information Network (EMIN) to solve that problem. The portal uses customized decision-support tools to manage information related to Bangladesh’s water resources, including flooding, fisheries and argriculture, predicting potential problems such as riverbank erosion.

“This information can be downloaded onto handheld devices, kind of like a BlackBerry, to the people who are literally in hip waders trying to do something about it,” he said.

When they are not being used in actual disasters, some organizations are turning to satellites for training purposes. Patrick Agnieray, marketing director for Alcatel Space, showed a slide which demonstrated how satellite images can be combined in applications that use audio feeds, videoconferencing and chat rooms to help emergency teams organize themselves. The technology is used by France’s voluntary firefighting service, for example, which experiences a high turnover rate and requires ongoing education.

“It’s not a question of trying to provide you with the satellite technology – that’s not what you’re interested in,” Angieray said. “It’s the services that we can provide based on them.”

The World Conference on Disaster Management continues through Wednesday.

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