A s we approach the start of the hurricane season in the United States, there are daily reminders that all of the lessons we thought were learned last year in the Gulf Coast might not yet have been put into practice. One such lesson is the importance of efforts to provide not only emergency communications capabilities, but also continuity of service for both government and business communications.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) chief Michael Chertoff noted April 12 that the department’s Preparedness Directorate is conducting a review of the emergency plans of all 50 states and 75 major urban areas, “with the goal of issuing a report on June 1 that further assesses the capabilities of states, pinpoints shortfalls, and makes specific recommendations to help us achieve a better state of preparedness by this summer.”

A preliminary report in February revealed several areas needing improvement, including the need for a plan for basic communications operability as well as interoperability.

At the same time, emergency plans are now being developed and announced by DHS in anticipation of a potential avian flu pandemic, which will involve many of the same response organizations, and will further stress communications capabilities. In the pandemic planning, which is being undertaken by all agencies of the federal government, there is even greater focus on planning for the maintenance of critical communications infrastructure and services in anticipation of large numbers of people being unable to reach their normal workplaces.

Recent reports have emphasized, among other things, the need to expand Internet access to accommodate large numbers of telecommuting workers.

In general, however, most public attention is given to disaster relief and recovery communications serving the first responders and disaster relief community in the aftermath of an unexpected event, and here there is often a large and visible role played by satellites.

Large-scale deployment of satellite-based disaster relief/recovery communications occurred following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and attracted long overdue recognition of the value of satellites as part of such responses. This deployment included: specially designed Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicles equipped with satellite phones and a portable, tripod satellite dish; police and rescue teams using satellite phones; and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and DHS employing mobile offices and command centers.

While disaster relief/recovery communication services fill the gaps after a disaster occurs, of equal importance is the maintenance or restoration of business communications, including the business of telecommunications companies themselves. These services form part of an organization’s disaster mitigation plan that often includes a satellite-based solution as backup in the event of a terrestrial-based communications failure. This has long been a key market for providers of the business-to-business satellite communication systems known as Very Small Aperture Terminals and large satellite operators, many of which have recently developed expanded offerings for business continuity applications.

Acquiring such services involves more planning and equipment than disaster recovery services, because these types of services are procured under an advance contract as backup solutions. But in these situations satellites also play a key role. Satellites operate literally above the fray, and their ground infrastructure is both flexible and rapidly scalable, making it possible to deploy when and as needed.

Customers for business continuity services include public and private institutions such as hospitals, outpatient clinics, the Red Cross and other relief agencies, as well as multi-site corporations that wish to ensure continuing communications in the event of a disruption to their primary communications system. As noted above, the number of such enterprises is dramatically increased in pandemic scenario planning given the broader area likely to be impacted. In addition, federal, state and local government agencies not involved in immediate emergency response roles require business continuity services, as evidenced by the increase in planning they are now undertaking. These include locally managed transportation authorities such as airports, seaports and rail stations, as well as utility companies.

Communications infrastructure for business continuity must be part of a preparedness plan put in practice by each public institution and private company. Most solutions will integrate different types of communication (for example, terrestrial wireless, optical fiber and satellite) into a single network. The key is for the system to be able to switch to emergency mode when a failure is identified and return to the primary network when it has been recovered. For corporations, the investment in such infrastructure is an individual decision. But because government services require an interoperable and integrated system, DHS must provide leadership for their planning and investment.

Satellites are clearly an essential component of both emergency response and business continuity solutions. And while communications satellites are the primary resource for such solutions, other space resources play important roles. Broadcast satellites — both television and radio — enable dissemination of key information for individuals and businesses. Imaging satellites provide data for damage assessment, and together with GPS assets, provide support for evacuation planning, routing of relief workers and the distribution of materials.

As we enter this season of heightened activity, it is useful to remember the value of using our space-based resources, and elements of planning put forth by the Satellite Industry Association following last year’s hurricanes:

– Satellites must be an essential component of critical communications networks;

– Satellite capacity and equipment must be pre-purchased and pre-positioned;

– Satellite operators and personnel must be credentialed as first responders; and

– Satellite spectrum must be preserved and protected from interference.

Andrea Maleter is technical director for Futron Corp.