Ottawa Fire Services gives Web access to Haz/Mat unit

One of three Ontario response teams that handles chemical, biological radiological and nuclear (CBRN) incidents has deployed a mobile satellite antenna system that provides Internet access, e-mail and voice over IP in the event of a terrorist attack or major disaster.

Ottawa Fire Services, which, along with Toronto and Windsor, was established after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and receives funding from the province, is working with Ottawa-based C-Com Satellite Systems Inc., which manufactures the iNetVu Mobile units. All three teams are managed through the Ontario Fire Marshal’s Office, which set up a similar unit a year ago. C-Com recently installed the same system in one of two Haz-Mat/CBRN emergency vehicles, which are used by the team in the case of a terrorist threat or attack. Ottawa Fire Services expects the system to be fully operational by mid-April.

The products, which come in four different sizes, interface with satellite modems and can be mounted on top of vehicles or inside transportable platforms. Powered by the fire truck’s battery, the antenna, which is roughly 10 in. in height, can be deployed and fully operational within two to three minutes from anywhere. With the click of a mouse, the antenna locates a satellite signal, which is then captured by a reflector and transformed through a modem similar to a home DSL or cable modem setup.

The Ottawa team will be able to use the system to communicate back to management in Ottawa from virtually anywhere in the province. The iNetVu Mobile antenna uses a Viasat LinkStar Modem, which delivers download speeds of up to 58 Mbps and upload speeds of 1.67 Mbps. Ottawa Fire Services currently depends upon cell phones and radio, which aren’t always reliable if they’re in more remote locations. It, however, will continue to use these means of communication when in the general Ottawa area.

“The problem is when you’re covering the province you don’t have access. Communications is key to these responses,” said Kim Ayotte, chief of special operations at Ottawa Fire Services. “When we respond to these types of incidents many times we’re involved in doing research on the fly and the Internet is an excellent source of research if you know where to look.”

“It gives them the ability to essentially operate that vehicle from remote locations as if they would be running the service from their office,” said Leslie Klein, president and chief executive officer of C-Com Satellite Systems.

Ottawa Fire Sesrvices responds to approximately 200 to 250 hazardous materials incidents a year. In terms of CBRN situations, the group responded to several threats last year where there’s been white powder or something along the lines of Anthrax involved.

“We’ve had one that was a positive response but most of them are false alarms,” said Ayotte, adding there haven’t been any cases involving Anthrax in Canada.

The units will also allow team members to provide a live video feed from the emergency site back to Ottawa.

“Our management personnel at the command centre or emergency operation centre can get live footage as to what’s going on at the scene as well,” said Ayotte.

In terms of security, Klein said satellite modems are highly encrypted and most companies use a virtual private network (VPN) connection.

“It is very difficult to tap into satellite unless you have a tap into the network operation centre where the traffic originates going up into the air,” said Klein.

While the system’s reliability is very high, it can be affected by very severe weather such as a snowstorm similar to a TV satellite connection.

“You would have a degradation in speed,” Klein said. “If you’re running a one mega bit channel you may drop 20 or 30 per cent.”

On average, systems range from US $6,000 on the low-end for an antenna and modem up to US $13,000 in a case like this where a high-speed modem is in place, which costs between US $3,000 to $4,000 alone.

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