Cuba: Introduction

I was given the chance to participate in a mission trip for an eight-person team from St. Matthews United Methodist Church in Virginia to go to a Methodist Church in Santa Clara, Cuba.  We were told that it was a little painting and some masonry work.  It turned out to be heavy work busting reinforced concrete out with hand tools.

I’m going to devote a section of my blog to writing about my experiences.  There are too many little stories that I don’t want to lose and want to share.  These are all my perspective and how I feel from a limited exposure to the people of Cuba.  I will try to post these as often as time allows.  The experience was wonderful and look forward to the day of open relationships so I can bring my family to meet Pastor Yordi’s family and the work I did.

Today, I can say that I have gone to Cuba, touched the foundation of a church so it can expand, and been touched by God in a most unexpected way.

Satellite 2011

     I’m here at Satellite 2011 in Washington, DC.  Like many conferences, there are new things worth seeing and trying to figure out.  Here’s a few of the things that I’ve seen so far.  Follow the action on the Twitter hashtag #Satellite2011.

     This vendor had a neat concept that could become very useful.  The auto-aquire VSAT unit is mounted in a shippable container.  A national organization can maintain the VSAT in a single warehouse and use an overnight shipping company or airline freight company to get it on-scene within 24 hours.  The VSAT is setup on the luggage rack of any rented SUV … and possibly just inserted in the bed of a pickup depending on look angles.  The dish can be left up while driving.  They claim that a connection can be established at a “quick halt”.  The big advantage to this is removing the need to maintain a vehicle long-term.  Shift the vehicle to a rented one and only pay for use.  It would also work wonders on island operations where vehicle mounted systems can’t be sent there (easily).

Picture of SUV with shippable case VSAT on roof.

     Here is what really caught my eye.  This is a flat panel antenna for a Ku band satellite, yet it is only 2 feet on the long side.  The vendor is just the manufacturer and provides it to integrators that build the form factor around it.  They said that depending on the BUC, the panel can do 1-3 Mbps speeds.  The device is made from plastic and poured copper to keep the weight and cost down.  With this device at the core, I can have a near-BGAN sized device that is easily portable.  Add a 25-watt BUC to have transmit and receive capabilities that exceed my 1.2m dishes with 5 watt BUCs.  The higher start-up costs for the smaller form factor built around it could be offset by lower shipping and deployment costs over the life of the device.  Unfortunately, I haven’t seen this build out yet although I’m told it is here.

     Now I need to call out the problem with many standard size booths here.  Folks still do not know how to setup a booth that invites attendees to stop by.  For what this convention costs the exhibitors in staff time and money, I’m amazed how many are staff by people talking to other staff and have put up barrier to conversations. 
     When the people in a booth are talking to each other, attendees don’t want to interupt.  Tables, signs, and display cases are setup to divide the booth space from the walkway.  I don’t want to talk over a barrier unless I’m really interested in what you have to show me.
     On the good side, I’m seeing more and more exhibitors understanding the need to double and triple the carpet padding.  Happy feet don’t leave quickly.

IAEM 2011 Conference Speaker Submittal

IAEM: The Stakes are High conference logoThe International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) conference in November 2011 has put out a call for speakers.  The deadline of February 25 is fast approaching.  I decided to pitch a 1 hour breakout session loosely based on the course I teach at GWU.  Below is what I sent in.  Let me know your thought and make suggestions. Continue reading IAEM 2011 Conference Speaker Submittal

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.

Disaster Technology and traditional IT

I was recently asked just how handling technology in a disaster differs from traditional IT.



My normal elevator speech is simply that traditional corporate IT lives a life in maintenance mode.  There are many meetings to define a custom solution for a client, long ramp up periods to bring a configuration to life, the majority of the life-cycle spent keeping it running to the golden mark of 99.999% uptime, and then more meetings for the sunset.  Disaster technology lives life with rapid deployment, setup and speed to scale.  A T-0, we’re told where to be.  We’re on site one day later and setting up.  No meetings.  No change control boards.  No debating what color wire to use.  The site is run for a few weeks, maybe a month.  Then it is all torn down, packed up and sent back to a warehouse.  I add that a disaster technology unit can’t do what a traditional coporate IT unit does either.  The perfect relationship is where they work together: one is the anchor that keeps the back office functioning; the other is the sail to move with the changing wind; and they both share a compass to set a unified direction. Continue reading Disaster Technology and traditional IT

The Galaxy Tab and use in disasters

Samsung Galaxy Tab being heldThe Galaxy Tab has been in my hands for the past few weeks.  It is a tablet that uses the Android O/S and is about half the size of an iPad.  Connectivity for the one I’m using is through a built-in Verizon cellular chip.

My team and I were discussing the Galaxy.  The best summary we could find is that it is a great device if you can find the problem it solves.  My team and I are all equipped with some form of a Blackberry device, Dell laptop and cellular broadband.  So the question is where would this fit in our tool box?

Continue reading The Galaxy Tab and use in disasters

It’s all about usability

Get it all working together.

I’m regularly telling people to stop looking at smart phones as a device that makes phone calls plus other stuff, and instead look at it as a hand held data device.  There was an RFI/RFP a few years ago for a vehicle-based system that could track location, give directions and send messages.  Nearly all the respondents came back with multipart systems… this part does this, that part does that.  Today, the answer is simply to use a smart phone.  Continue reading It’s all about usability

Holiday mailing lists = disaster communications plan

I try to remind people every year that dusting off and updating the holiday mailing list is a good time to update their disaster communication’s plan.  Include on the list the names and toll free numbers for banks, insurance, loans, and utilities.  Don’t include the account numbers as you will probably know enough about your account that they can find the details for you.  These are recommended because if your house is burned down or swept away in floods, you’re still paying for the utilities until you close the account — even if the home is not there anymore.

Once you’ve updated all the information, print out a list of all your contacts and put a copy in each car plus one at home. 

I find the car’s trunk a good storage place for this type of information because I’m one of those that always has my car nearby.  Urban commuters that use mass transit should consider using a smaller, tighter font for a one pager that can be kept in whatever they carry.  People walk into my office regularly saying their phone didn’t charge overnight.  Once your phone battery is dead, any information stored there is useless.