Satellite 2011 Conference Interview

This interview is reposted from the Satellite 2011 Conference page.

An Inside Look with Keith Robertory, American Red Cross

Conference Chairman Scott Chase sat down with Keith Robertory, Disaster Services Technology Manager, American Red Cross, to discuss the relationship between government agencies and the satellite industry when a disaster strikes. You can hear more from Keith Robertory and other experts at Satellites to the Rescue on Tuesday, March 15

Scott Chase: In the event of an emergency situation of any type, how effective is coordination of government and industry satellite resources, and how does that all work?

Keith Robertory: Coordination of shared resources is going to be very important. Many organizations have satellite technology positioned as the emergency solution when terrestrial services do not work. If all these organizations pull out their satellite equipment during a disaster and try to use it, the limitations of shared bandwidth abruptly smack these organizations with reality. The satellite industry needs to work with its clients to better educate them on potential limitations. 

Offers of donated satellite systems and air time are welcome at any time. That said, the worst time to engage a response organization with an offer of new equipment, new technology, and limitations unknown to them is right after a disaster occurs. The priority of key decision makers will be the response effort. Effective government and industry coordination occurs long before the emergency situation ever arises.

SC: What applications do satellites bring to support the communications requirements of users in remote locations during and after the disaster?

KR: The American Red Cross satellite infrastructure has the IP packet as a common foundation. We are not trying to push different modes and protocols through the equipment. IP allows the core network to handle the information at a very basic level, reducing the number of conversions between the source and the destination. It can be data packets, voice or video, but it is all based on the basic IP packet. The trick to be successful in disasters is to make technology transparent. 

SC: What are the biggest changes you have seen in the use of satellite technology and equipment over the course of your own quarter-century in the high-tech arena?

KR: Satellite technology is becoming more and more commonplace. Imagine a couple decades ago telling someone that we’re going to send a radio signal to their car from tens of thousands of miles away. Small transceivers used to only exist in the realm of science fiction. It doesn’t seem that long ago that connectivity between computers was about as fast as you could read plain text. Now we are streaming HD video, video teleconferences, and entire site connectivity through a single satellite connection using equipment that is (relatively) easily shipped from site to site.

On the flip side, technology advances and shifts in philosophies are bringing previous “obsolete” concepts back to the mainstream. Many people consider cloud computing to be a new technology, but it isn’t. We used to call it mainframes and terminals. The current events in Egypt show that no matter how advanced the technology, technologists need to be ready to fall back to older methods to establish connectivity. Egypt is an example of how to communicate should a nationwide network be disrupted. Disaster technologists should be versed in many different tools.

SC: What would you say has been the biggest advance in satellite capability since you joined the American Red Cross nearly 15 years ago?

KR: Honestly, we have not made many substantial changes to the American Red Cross satellite system since it went live in 2000. Standing up a system of the size we have is a costly endeavor and major changes also cost more money. We’re in the maintenance mode of the IT life-cycle. We are going to keep the system running as long as possible because a poor economy is not the time to request a multi-million dollar upgrade that may not have a measureable direct impact on the mission to deliver disaster relief services to disaster survivors. 

Our system has grown to have two downlink stations and nearly 80 remotes in the field, including 12 satellite trucks. It is a completely internal system behind and protected by our corporate IT systems. The only thing we don’t own is the satellite itself. What has changed is how we use satellite capability and the philosophy behind technology selection. 

Consider that all the technology we have is a tool in a tool box. We are first and foremost a service delivery organization.  My unit’s objective is to establish connectivity in a disaster zone. We need to leverage everything in the most mission-sensible way to balance cost with service delivery. Technology that doesn’t enhance service delivery isn’t used.  The situation drives technology needs. As there is less and less local infrastructure, the selected tools shift to satellite-based technologies. 
Terrestrial technology, like cellular, is giving satellite a good run for its money. Cellular is getting faster, cheaper, and more resilient to disasters then it has been in the past. Satellite is also getting faster and cheaper. The decision point between where we can expect cellular to work and when to shift to satellite is in constant motion. Both are getting better but one will never replace the other for disaster work. Use the right tool for the right job. There is no single magic bullet idea.

SC: What can the global satellite industry do better to facilitate emergency response and humanitarian efforts at the scene of major disasters of any type?

KR: The satellite industry must reach out to humanitarian and other response organizations long before disaster occurs. It is challenging to fit a new connectivity solution into an existing network that is activity being used to respond to a catastrophe somewhere. And I say “catastrophe” because it seems to take the huge disaster to get lots of companies off the bench and in the game. Taking satellite technology to an organization responding to disaster is similar to telling a freighter that you’re going to change its propellers while it is navigating a horrendous storm in the North Atlantic.

Haiti was a time when this was successfully done, and that is an exception. Haiti was the largest response of the International Federation of the Red Cross. The technology that is normally sufficient for a disaster was quickly out-scaled and couldn’t keep up with demand. Luckily, the American Red Cross domestic response team’s experience with satellite was able to screen and facilitate the offers of satellite service on behalf of the international response team who could not shift attention off the response.

SC: In your role as supervisor of literally hundreds of volunteers, many of whom may have never seen, for example, a satellite phone, what is the one thing the satellite industry could do now to simplify emergency response?

KR: A larger diagram on the satellite phone to tell them to use it outside would be a good start. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Any device that is stored “for emergency use only” will not be successful in an emergency without a lot of training. In my experience, even that can be questionable. The best “in case of emergency” device is one that a user uses every day and is resilient to disasters. The American Red Cross actually uses fewer satellite phones then you probably think. Amateur radio plays a vital role in the first couple days of a disaster, and cellular is coming back online after that. Satellite phones are used in pocket areas where we have few other working options.

It is fair to say that all the technology deployed to an American Red Cross disaster response is received, set up, managed, troubleshot, packed up and shipped back by volunteers. I’m blessed with a cadre of high caliber volunteers who can use technology and speak human. We’re the high-tech in a human-touch organization. My technical volunteers in the field are the support system for the volunteers in the field that directly touch the clients. A key to our success is a step-by-step job aid for every action that needs to be done. These range from wiring a laptop to setting up a full VSAT. As long as a new volunteer is willing to be flexible and follow directions, we can put them to use in American Red Cross Disaster Services Technology with minimal upfront training.  Our more experienced volunteers can get more deployment and training opportunities.

The short answer comes back to simplifying the technology to be more reliable, set up quickly with less user intervention, and require less hands-on to keep it running.

Join Keith for Satellites to the Rescue: Industry and Government Partnership in Disaster Relief, 4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday, March 15, Room 207A. Access to the session is included with your Full Conference registration.