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Wireless When You Need It

Mobile cell towers, handsets on standby, and companies’ dedicated disaster response teams can help your agency stay connected.

January 01, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

In September 2005, Hurricane Katrina knocked out communications throughout the New Orleans area, creating mass chaos. Residents couldn't call for help or find out if loved ones were safe. Making matters worse, law enforcement agencies couldn't communicate to coordinate with each other. Major communications carriers AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon mobilized their resources to bring in equipment and personnel to restore coverage for public safety. But it took several days to build the networks from the ground up. At the time, the companies didn't have divisions devoted to providing communications coverage to disaster areas.

Not every natural disaster is as devastating as Katrina. But does your agency have a plan in place that would allow you to communicate in case a similar event occurred in your jurisdiction?

Catastrophic events including lightning storms and floods can affect traditional forms of communications. Cell towers and land lines are particularly vulnerable. This is why wireless carriers now have dedicated units that provide law enforcement agencies with products and services to ensure they can communicate in even the worst disasters. Using these systems, you can respond effectively, no matter the circumstances.

COLTs and COWs

No, COLTs and COWs have nothing to do with working a ranch. They are acronyms for satellite-based communications centers that act as mobile cellular sites. And they're often the best way to put police agencies' communications back online after a disaster.

"SatColts are satellite cell on light trucks. COWs (cell on wheels) are traditionally trailers that must be hooked up to a tractor trailer rig and towed to a location," explains Tanya Linn, operations manager for Sprint's Emergency Response Team (ERT).

Both serve the same purpose, but COLTs are often preferred over COWs because they are more rugged, and can therefore get to more remote locations. They can even drive directly onto ferries or C-130 transport planes. Both COWs and COLTs can be used to replace a downed cell tower, or to bring cell service to an area too remote for coverage by other means. And with satellite IP service, they can be used to provide voice, video, and data communications for first responders in the area.

Companies can't disclose how many COLTs and COWs they have on hand or where they are located. But all wireless carriers keep several in different regions across the country, so there will always be one relatively nearby. Delivery time varies based on a number of factors. Chief among them are availability of assets and accessibility to the site. Damaged roadways and bridges can of course impact delivery time.

But another issue to keep in mind is that wireless carriers employ COWs and COLTs to restore communications to their clients, first and foremost. Companies will try to accommodate law enforcement, but they have other obligations as well.

"Our first job as a communications carrier is to provide communications coverage to consumers and businesses and people that are our clients," says Stacey Black, director of market development for AT&T. "That's our primary licensed requirement by the FCC."

This is one reason a police department might want to lease a COLT or COW. The agency can pay a monthly fee to have the vehicle kept in a nearby location on reserve.

"If an agency is interested, it can put a SatCOLT on reserve and then indicate a predesignated place where they need it sent," says Linn of Sprint's program. "By having that lease, they're the first priority for restoration, or for bringing one of those SatCOLTs in to provide their communications coverage. Four one-week deployments are included in the monthly lease pricing."

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