|Commanders could scope out a fire scene from HQ using wireless video units with WNET's proposed system. Photo shows taped fire scene. (Photo: WNET.)|
Originally published in Current, June 12, 2006
By Jeremy Egner
In 2004, the fire department in Rochester, N.Y. — hoping to revamp its training program for firefighters — approached WXXI, the local public TV station, with a question: Could it create a real-time TV channel to broadcast training materials, as many pubTV stations do for community colleges?
Can do, replied Kent Hatfield, WXXI’s v.p. of technology and operations, adding, “But why don’t we do something better than that?”
|What's the wind direction? Rochester firefighters want to know that to suppress a fire, and WXXI's wireless network has the answer, says Hatfield. (Photo: Jon Holiniak, WXXI.)|
After all, what firefighter would want a musty old TV channel instead of on-demand training videos and — when five alarms ring — aerial maps of the fire site with instant readings of wind speed and direction for planning their attack on the blaze?
All are part and parcel of WXXI’s new Emergency Training and Information Network, which will datacast six targeted streams to Rochester and Monroe County emergency services such as police, sheriff’s and fire departments, paramedic units and local hospitals. The encrypted channels, hitchhiking on WXXI’s DTV signal, will carry training programsmade by WXXI for each service, as well as supplementary content. City managers can also use the network for live MPEG4 video emergency bulletins.
Fueled with a $640,000 Department of Homeland Security grant, the network will launch next month with 108 data delivery points in firehouses and command centers. WXXI will derive revenue from producing the videos and transmitting them and other data using less than 3 percent of the station’s digital bitrate—about 500 kilobits per second of the total 19.4 megabits per second.
“The whole thing runs on Microsoft OS and should be easy to implement,” Hatfield says. “We prototyped this as something that could be rolled out at other public TV stations.”
WXXI’s network is just one of numerous ways that public TV stations are seeking to aid public safety and homeland security agencies. After 9/11 and then Hurricane Katrina exposed flaws in emergency communications, the government has been eager to upgrade its systems.
Such projects represent a neat marriage of mission and opportunity: Communities value few things more highly than bolstering their security. And, thanks to digital compression, stations are relatively rich with transmission capacity and looking for ways to use it.
Members of PBS’s Digital Futures Initiative panel recommended in December that public TV use at least some of its digital capacity for emergency preparedness projects. Many managers in the system agree.
“We’re the only ones really positioned to do this,” says Byron Knight, retiring head of Wisconsin’s statewide networks. Wisconsin is experimenting with a combined public safety network using DTV datacasting, Educational Broadband Service microwave channels (formerly known by the FCC nomenclature of ITFS) and broadband technology such as WiMax. “We control a lot of spectrum and our mission is to look out for the public good. This is part of that mission.”
The public safety project with the highest profile, the effort led by the Association of Public Television Stations to create a digital alert system using the public TV satellite system, is moving ever closer to national deployment.
The system should be up and running in some stations before the end of the hurricane season, which runs through November, or “once the cooperative agreement with APTS is in place,” says Kevin Briggs, director of the readiness division at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. An additional pilot test, adding input terminals for local emergency authorities in nine Gulf and Atlantic Coast states, will launch soon, Briggs says.
New York’s WNET, Las Vegas’s KLVX and New Jersey Network, among other pubcasters, have their own security projects under way that incorporate DTV datacasting and EBS video:
Not incidentally, plenty of grants are available for public safety projects.
The Department of Homeland Security, FEMA’s parent, has poured roughly $1 million into the national alert system project, with $5 million more to come, Briggs says.
WXXI’s funding came from the DHS’s Metropolitan Medical Response System division. The more than $3 million to finance WNET’s GUARD project came from the Defense Department’s National Technology Alliance.
CPB gave KLVX $500,000 for its efforts, and the Las Vegas school district, licensee of the station, kicked in $600,000, says Tom Axtell, station g.m.
Though Congress has been split on pubcasting aid recently (brief, page 4), it may provide more public safety funding if one influential lawmaker gets his way. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, recently urged his colleagues to support the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act, part of which requires the government to fund upgrades to stations’ digital transmitters to enable them “to serve as a backbone for the reception, relay, and retransmission of National Alert System alerts.”
At the local and state levels, public safety initiatives are also hard-to-beat examples of a station’s value for donors and state legislatures, station managers say.
So shouldn’t every station knock on public safety doors? Knight says no. Those already facing tough financial choices about maintaining their basic operations shouldn’t leap into first responder projects, he says. “I don’t believe this will produce enough revenue to ‘save’ public broadcasting,” he says. “That’s not why we’re doing it.”
Such projects “enhance our justification for public funding,” he adds, “but don’t go here if you’re looking for a silver bullet.”
Stations’ approaches to emergency service are as varied as today’s potential catastrophes. But pubcasters share a theme that appeals to emergency managers.
“There’s a bottleneck in all these new technologies because no matter how good or promising they are, you have to have spectrum to make them real,” says Stephen Carrol Cahnmann, WNET’s director of digital convergence. “Everyone listens once they hear that I’ve got spectrum.”
WNET’s GUARD project uses the station’s EBS spectrum for two-way mobile communications, including video. The New York Fire Department wanted electronic command boards, instant digital access to maps and blueprints, and tools to track emergency vehicles, Cahnmann says.
But because post-9/11 protocols discourage commanders from leaving headquarters, “what they really want is eyes and ears out in the field,” he says. They can have those through the two-way video capability of converted EBS channels.
WNET is largely finished with its initial mission to build and test prototypes and find users for its system. Now Cahnmann plans to promote uses of EBS spectrum elsewhere before public TV stations, colleges and other EBS licensees lease their excess capacity to telecom companies (Current, April 17). Cahnmann demonstrated WNET’s system at St. Louis’ KETC and at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in April and has begun talks with Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
“The next step is . . . to help one or two other communities do the same thing we did in New York and see if something starts to happen,” he says. “It’s up to us to evangelize about what we think is a great opportunity to provide a very valuable service to communities.”
One of the goals of Wisconsin’s new research project is to figure out exactly how much capacity EBS licensees can commit to telecom companies without affecting their ability to provide public safety services.
“How much EBS spectrum do you need to do two-way video? Can you sell 80 percent and keep 20 percent for public safety? That’s one of the things we’re trying to measure,” Knight says.
The project seeks to find the most efficient way to combine multiple technologies to beam video from emergency sites to authorities. For example, WiMax on EBS channels could be used to move images from car accidents or fires to a TV station, which could datacast them to medical specialists farther away. “WiMax may only cover three miles, but if you get that back to your server, then you have a huge radius,” Knight says.
Wisconsin hopes to complete the research later this year.
KLVX’s school emergency database should be done in roughly 10 months, Axtell says. The project will give public safety personnel access to data such as daily attendance records, escape routes and locations of hazardous materials, as well as images from security cameras in schools. KLVX has also been in talks with casinos about establishing similar emergency support.
“One week after 9/11, Las Vegas laid off over 50,000 people because the tourists stopped coming,” Axtell says. “We took a look and said, “If there are more attacksin our country, what would our role be? . . . Among all the activities for commercial exploitation of DTV, this is a close to mission-centric as you could find.”
Back in Rochester, WXXI earns fees for data transmission as well as for production of the training material. For example, if an agency is choosing a piece of hardware—say a ladder for the fire department or a stun gun for the police—WXXI goes to the manufacturer to produce an instructional video.
WXXI doesn’t yet know how much it will earn from the service, Hatfield says. But the station is already adding two to four hours of content per day, all of which is available on demand, as it trains administrators for the July launch.
Though the service includes six discrete channels for training, it has an emergency mode in which local emergency managers can override the channels and feed live video. The service also incorporates geo-spatial imaging and maps from Pictometry, a Rochester-based aerial imaging firm, as well as real-time specialized weather and hydrographic data such as wind speed and direction and river levels.The service covers seven New York counties and parts of two others, and WXXI hopes to partner with other stations to expand it, Hatfield says.
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