Sunday, March 7, 2021

Satellite Communications for Fire Department During Disasters


Photos by Scott H. Shook | Fire Chief Chris Byrne, FF/EMT Steve Gaskill, Captain Jim Pope, Kevin Wallace, Alyssa Gordon, FF/paramedic Eric Grace, Division Chief Chris Crosson, Mackenzie Long, Captain Dan Stoller, rescue LT Oscar Hernandez and engineer Jeff Kutzke. Kneeling: Chris Bowden, Captain Dan Stoller and FF/paramedic Jesse Yarnell. The stained glass in the background was created by former division chief Don Jones. It will be moved to the new fire house when it is built.


 

After Puerto Rico was devastated by a powerful Category 5 hurricane in 2017, much of its infrastructure was destroyed. A Marco man, Mackenzie Long, and his company, viLogics, stepped in to provide communications relief with a satellite phone network that allowed first responders to communicate with each other when all other modes of communication were disabled. 

Now Long is donating six of those very satellite phones to the City of Marco Island Fire Rescue Department.  

“We had all the satellite phones in the disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico,” Mackenzie Long said. “They’re push-to-talk walkietalkie satellite phones with iridium plates. So they were actually able to push-to-talk and use them. It was pretty much, at one point, the only form of communication they had during the efforts when they were down there. We got all the phones back and we’re going to donate them to the fire department so we’re able to actually get more use out of them.” 

Mackenzie Long, president of viLogics, the IT security company that donated six satellite phones to the fire department.

The fire department is delighted to receive the phones that sell for $1,500 each. 

“First of all,” said Chris Byrne, Fire Chief for the City of Marco Island, “we’re of course grateful for their generosity in bringing us this tool. It’s vital. Communications are always the key point in any emergency, in any disaster. When you lose communications, things begin to go bad. To have that ability to maintain constant communication with our crews keeps them safe. Keeps us able to manage the incident and have that backup always there. We’re grateful. It’s a wonderful donation. It’s a savings to our taxpayers. It’s all about that public-private partnering for the betterment of the community. For that we’re grateful.” 

The department sees immediate uses for the hightech phones. 

“This is going to solve a communications issue we have once we’re out of cell phone range offshore,” said Division Chief Chris Crossan. “We know the three breakdowns are communications, personal protective equipment (PPE) and crew integrity. Right now, I have to communicate through the Coast Guard over VHF radio – and we do that – but with these phones we’ll have the ability to talk directly to our people. 

“I’ve been tasked to make them work for the whole city and I’m going to do it,” Crossan added. ”My job is to protect all these guys here, and to be a representative of the Chief.” 

“We’ve had experiences in the past during hurricanes, primarily, whether it’s here in the community or when our crews deploy all over the State of Florida,” Byrne added. ”When there’s total infrastructure loss—cell phone, web, regular landline phone, power—when all of that is gone there is no way to communicate back to the home base or their command. We may be equipped with one Sat phone. But one Sat phone doesn’t get the job done when you need to communicate with multiple units. And they also cover the Gulf of Mexico for when they’re out of cell phone range and may be out of radio range. So again, not only does this help us maintain communications, but it also keeps them all safe. So we’re grateful for this donation. They will absolutely be utilized.” 

Crossan said the new satellite phones will be valuable during brush fires. 

“Even during a brush fire—like last year—we were in it last year,” Crossan said. “It gets a little hairy out there.”  

Jake Clemmons, the department’s training officer, will help Crossan deploy the phones. Clemmons also envisions the phones being helpful during brush fires. 

“These satellite phones are really going to help us,” Clemmons said. “When these brushfires break out, you sometimes lose the communications that you once had, which is an unpredicted situation. With these satellite phones, it’s going to really open up the communication line for us and offer a consistent line of communication for the crews on the ground and the command systems that are in place. 

“When our boats go out between five and seven miles, we start losing some communications,” Clemmons continued. “It’s really going to help us make sure our patients who need help are getting the help that they needthat we know that they’re getting help, and that our guys are safe. Communications are key when you’re on the water. If you lose communications with those people when they’re out on the water, we have no idea what’s going on. This is really going to open up a lot of opportunities to keep everybody safer.”  

One of the satellite radios donated to the fire department by viLogics. The radios were used in Puerto Rico during disaster relief efforts in 2017.

Long said the satellite phones had been sitting around for a couple of years and viLogics saw an opportunity to get them back in action. 

“We wanted to do something with them,” Long said. ”They were very successful in Puerto Rico. So we met with Chris Crossan and said, ‘We have these, would you be interested?’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ 

“I think the biggest thing is we live right on the ocean,” Long said. “If there was a fire or something, the cellphone service gets kind of bad the further south we get towards Chokoloskee. I didn’t realize how big an area this fire department covers. It’s massive. There’s a lot of dead spots where they would be able to help out. And let’s be honest; there’s times with cell phone service when there’s too many people in one place and you can’t get a call or a signal anyway. I think it will help them unify. If someone has one back here, they can at least check in and see what’s going on.” 

Long said one of the advantages of the phones his company is donating is that the fire department will have a product that they know will work in their application. 

“I think sometimes people don’t know what to get,” Long said. “We know these work. We’ve tested them in a real-life disaster case, and they worked.” 

 


 

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