(click thumbnail)John Lawson, president of American Public Television Stations, unveiled DEAS to the media last summer.While various industry players jockey for spectrum made available by the DTV transition, public TV stations are contributing more and more of their own resources to the nation's public safety communications infrastructure.
A handful of pioneering DTV programs across the country are linking local public safety offices to information from training modules to scheduling programs and routine data to live video. And DEAS (the Digital Emergency Alert System) is expected to have its first phase to be running across some 53 public television stations in the nation's hurricane belt by June 1.
"We're building a backbone of an alert and response system that could be built out with a wide range of state and local capabilities," said John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations.
Launched in 2006, DEAS gives FEMA an avenue into PBS' satellite feed, so that a message may be sent to selected channels as well as to the states' emergency operations centers. States can then deal with the info as they see fit, likely triggering the traditional analog EAS across all channels. SpectraRep Inc., based in Chantilly, Va., is providing systems integration and project management services for DEAS.
Meanwhile, funding remains a central issue for several local communities, seeking to unite their far-flung public safety agencies with a single emergency information source.
In Rochester, N.Y., the ETIN (Emergency Training and Information Network) has receivers in more than 100 locations, with six channels (police, fire, etc.) operating. Lt. Dan Bender of the Rochester Fire Department, who conceived much of the system and provides it with content, says the system, using a SkyScraper datacasting system from Princeton, N.J.-based Triveni Digital at public station WXXI, is up and running and used every day, although some bugs--mostly now ironed out--have accompanied the rollout.
Among the lessons learned: Likening the system to a tree that grew a bit fast for its roots. Bender said the initial implementation involved many receivers and locations--more than 100.
"We tried to get too many sites in under the initial grant," Bender said. "We had to skimp on hardware and now we're revisiting that."
Looking ahead, Bender notes that his region still has hundreds of sites that ought to be tied into the system. HeÕs planning a major demonstration, involving local congressmen and local media, to turn them on to the system and to show the Department of Homeland Security what he did with their grant money.
"Funding is always the biggest obstacle with technology that I've found," he said.
Bender is also using third-party applications; one local company, Pictometry, provides mapping data that satellite imagery can be integrated with the system. He's also exploring mobile wireless applications for the system to reach vehicles.
He's enlisted some of the local agencies as "subscribers," paying for the content--putting the heat on Bender to keep his content worthwhile.
Kent Hatfield, vice president of technology and operations at WXXI, said he uses a Terayon DM6400 CherryPicker muxer and the Triveni to get efficient signals and flexibility across various bit-rates. Reception problems--namely receivers crashing from the datacasting signal--were due to receivers that were not ATSC-compliant, he said.
Now, he said, other cities are coming to Rochester to see how to adapt the model to their own needs.
Hatfield compares the process to "inventing the wheel."
"Our goal was to invent a framework which could be rapidly deployed, and we've done that," he said.
The staff at KPBS in San Diego visited Rochester and are now also using the Triveni SkyScraper Emergency Services Network in a multi-agency project with the San Diego Police Department--to deliver training and emergency information to the various agencies in that vast metropolis in a new Regional Emergency Services Network. Features include capability for live video feeds from a helicopter.
Officer Sandi Lehan, SDPD special projects manager said the setup will include portable "suitcases" of receiving gear so that outside agencies that come in during a major event--say, out-of-area firefighters, or the Red Cross--can also be in the loop on the DTV-driven information.
Lehan said that in the Cedar Fires of 2003, mobile phone networks were overwhelmed, so the reliability and penetration of the DTV signal became clear as a major asset.
Triveni has more projects in the works in various cities. Out west, for example, the Utah Education Network (UEN) is installing Sky Scraper to datacast educational media for its Youth In Custody program, helping teachers of about 1,200 youth at 13 facilities across the state.
Ralph Bachoven, director of product management and marketing at Triveni said he's making headway in expanding SkyScraper technology to mobile applications.
"People would like to have all this information in their squad cars, fire trucks and so forth," he said. 8-VSB is not the best environment for mobile, he said, but often the "mobile" users are in vehicles parked still at emergency sites. Also, he said, Triveni's algorithms are optimized to allow the smooth resumption of downloads that get interrupted.
He said other trials in are underway in different cities to prove the usefulness of the DTV signal as a pillar of emergency response.
"When Hurricane Katrina went through the New Orleans area, the PBS stations were up and running," he said. "If you want to have, in the case of an emergency, a reliable network, I think DTV/PBS are a great network to utilize, and that network is in place today."
Lawson says efforts are underway in Washington to enable broadcasters to do more in public safety. Among other things, under provisions of the Warning Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act, the FCC has established a committee to help enable users of any device, including mobile phones, to receive emergency information.
A grant program associated with this cause was stripped out of the bill before passage, but Lawson said public broadcasters are circulating draft legislation informally called "WARN 2" to take care of some more issues, including funding.