"Disaster recovery capabilities are something that our legacy system lacked," says Lt. Cmdr. Brian Anderson.
Nov 05 2008

Clear Connection

With a move to IP networks, VoIP fail-over and remote monitoring provide agencies a COOP option during a crisis.

When Hurricane Gustav slammed New Orleans in September, the Coast Guard’s local watchstanders were sitting high and dry at a data center in Martinsburg, W.Va., monitoring the Gulf of Mexico coastline from a thousand miles away.

Remote monitoring was made possible by the disaster recovery features of Rescue 21, the Coast Guard’s new wireless communications system for handling distress calls from boaters.

The $1.1 billion Rescue 21 system — which uses off-the-shelf digital radios, software, PCs and routers — is deployed in 16 Coast Guard sectors around the country and so far covers more than 25,000 miles of coastline. By 2012, it will blanket U.S. coastal and interior waterways, excluding Alaska. The Coast Guard will complete the Alaska rollout by 2017.

Coast Guard officials say Hurricane Gustav was the first test of Rescue 21’s remote-monitoring feature.

“Disaster recovery capabilities are something that our legacy system lacked,” says Lt. Cmdr. Brian Anderson, technical manager for the Rescue 21 Program Office. “With the power of the new network, we have the ability to reroute communications to Martinsburg, our backup communications center.”

The Coast Guard isn’t the only agency upgrading its wireless communications systems and adding new capabilities, such as the improved reliability, redundancy and continuity of operations that come from IP-based standards. The Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and Treasury departments all are following similar strategies, not only to gain the advantages of Voice over IP fail-over but also to ease integration and interagency communications.

Why IP Is More Stable

The main reason for the Coast Guard’s newfound ability to withstand even the stormiest weather is the Internet Protocol network that underpins Rescue 21. “Our old legacy system used lots of point-to-point analog lines from the radio towers back to our communications centers,” Anderson says. “The Rescue 21 communications network provides us with more flexibility in the routing of voice communications. It’s not necessarily instantaneous now, but eventually that would be our hope.”

Justice is rolling out the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN) to provide secure, standards-based wireless communications to all federal law enforcement officials. Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury will use the wireless network, which could cost as much as $5 billion over the next decade.

Meanwhile, Defense is benefiting from the $190 million Alaska Land Mobile Radio System, a new emergency wireless communications system shared by federal, state and local agencies. The secure, standards-compliant ALMR offers integrated voice and data services to the state’s first responders.

The system uses redundant equipment, transportable gear and extensive controls to ensure that it meets DOD’s requirement of “five nines” (99.999 percent) reliability. Built using Motorola radios and controllers, ALMR has 13,000 users, including federal, state and local government agencies with operations in Alaska.

fact: 95,000: Miles of U.S. coastline and interior waterways that the Rescue 21 system
will cover when it is fully deployed, including Alaska, by 2017

“We have 93 sites operational,” says Tim Woodall, DOD project manager for ALMR. “The municipality of Anchorage is coming on, which will add another 15 sites when it is done.”

The system relies on a fixed wireless infrastructure that runs along roadways, as well as equipment inside buildings. It uses the state of Alaska’s private IP network for wide-area connectivity.

Defense built its Alaska system to the Telecommunication Industry Association’s Project 25 standards, which means it supports UHF and VHF radios used by governmental first responders across the state. ALMR also supports gateways for communications with nongovernmental service providers, such as utilities and hospitals.

COOP Recoup

ALMR’s continuity of operations plan includes having master and backup controllers for each of the system’s three zones.

“We have layers of operational redundancy,” Woodall says. “If you lose wide-area connectivity, you can keep zone connectivity. If you lose zone connectivity, then you can go to site trunking. If you lose site trunking, then you can go to conventional radio-to-radio communications.”

ALMR has two transportable satellite communications systems that can be set up during an emergency if a location doesn’t have enough wireless capacity to support operations.

“The transportable systems can be plugged in if a site goes down, or they can fill in outside the ALMR system, like in interior Alaska where we don’t have coverage,” Woodall says. “These systems can use satellite coverage to reach back to our infrastructure to bring in telephone and Internet service.”

All three of these new federal wireless systems comply with the Project 25 suite of standards, which support legacy analog radios as well as the latest digital devices. P25 systems such as Rescue 21 integrate with IP networks, which give them the ability to route around outages.

Disaster recovery is built in, explains Mike Monteilh, engineering manager for national communications and homeland security with General Dynamics, prime contractor on Rescue 21 and IWN. “The Coast Guard wasn’t even down during Gustav because when the hurricane came … we had it set up so they could watch over everything remotely from West Virginia.”

During Gustav, Rescue 21 operators from Sector New Orleans sat at workstations at the Coast Guard Operations Systems Center in Martinsburg. From there, they were able to monitor the Louisiana coastline, the Mississippi River delta and parts of Texas. They could pick up distress calls from the Coast Guard’s radio towers in the region and communicate with nearby first responders in search-and-rescue operations.

“Because it’s on an IP network, we can get the operators out of harm’s way,” Monteilh says. “We didn’t want them sitting in a sector command center in the midst of a hurricane. So we moved them to Martinsburg, and we logically mapped the controls over those radio towers to West Virginia.”

Rescue 21 has a host of new features and uses the latest hardware, including Land Mobile Radio Systems from Motorola,

Cisco Systems routers, Hewlett-Packard PCs and direction-finding systems.

One benefit for search and rescue is that digital recorders let operators replay and manipulate VoIP communications that come from boaters. “Digital communications are much clearer,” Monteilh says. “If you can imagine being in an emergency on a sinking boat, you’re likely to be talking fast and have the wind behind you.”

By filtering out different channels from the multiple incoming communications streams, adds Anderson, Coast Guard watchstanders can isolate and understand information more easily and therefore act more quickly.

Essentially, this means that because all the voice packets are digital, the system provides the Coast Guard with a way “to take the background noise out, to slow down the voice recording and to play it back,” Monteilh says.

Infrastructure Rebuild

The Coast Guard is in the midst of switching Rescue 21 from the Coast Guard Data Network to the Homeland Security

Department’s OneNet, an all-IP network. This switchover will enhance Rescue 21’s reliability with dynamic fail-over.

“The Coast Guard Data Network is point-to-point circuits, so we do have single points of failure,” Anderson says. “OneNet will provide some dynamic routing capability that we don’t have now.”

In the meantime, Rescue 21 is proving effective in daily search-and-rescue missions.

“Because this system is so much more sensitive than our legacy system, we’re hearing more distress calls. We have a lot more cases,” Anderson says. “At the same time, we’re reducing our search times.”

Photo: Darko Zagar