Rochester Responders Tuning in Datacasts

ROCHESTER, N.Y.: One night about two years ago, Lt. Dan Bender of the Rochester (N.Y.) Fire Department, was watching HBO on-demand, and got an idea.
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Pubcaster WXXI, Triveni build emergency info system

ROCHESTER, N.Y.:

One night about two years ago, Lt. Dan Bender of the Rochester (N.Y.) Fire Department, was watching HBO on-demand, and got an idea.

What if the city and county’s emergency and public health and safety squads had a similar kind of on-demand menu of training programs, weather updates, daily schedules and, when needed, information on an emergency in progress? And what if 100 offices and agencies in Rochester and Monroe County, N.Y., could access all this continually updated content using that most familiar of man’s tools, the remote control?

Since his on-demand epiphany, Bender has been awarded a hefty federal grant, acquired a Triveni Digital SkyScraper datacasting system, and a couple of extra megabits-per-second on the public airwaves of WXXI-DT, the local PBS DTV station. He’s also managed to sell the program, the Emergency Training and Information Network (ETIN), to his local emergency response crews—including about 39 fire departments in the largely rural county. And the system is so easy to use, he said, that it’s “fireman-proof.”

Bender’s project at WXXI is another example of public television stations that are using new digital broadcast technologies for public safety and emergency response, even as Congress considers legislation to revise the data of analog shut-off reassign frequencies to public safety needs.

Broadcasters say the Rochester project shows the broadcast infrastructure itself can be a backbone of widely varied, advanced, rich-media public services of the future.

At presstime, the WXXI project was on the verge of launching, linking police and fire departments, hospitals, and more with a continuous daily stream of safety and training content, plus special emergency functions, controlled by remotes and viewed on 32-inch LCD screens.

“What it came down to is, ‘how do we consolidate all this content and deliver it over a single pipe, so to speak, to a dedicated location like a firehouse, like a police station, like a hospital, without creating too much overhead at the recipient site?’” said Ralph Bachofen, director of product management for Triveni Digital in Princeton Junction, N.J.

Initially, Bender brought his idea to the local cable operator, Time Warner Cable, who showed little interest, he said. But then he met with folks at WXXI, and found a more receptive audience. He then found a Department of Homeland Security grant—a “Special Projects Grant” in a part of DHS called the Metropolitan Medical Response Program—whose aims closely matched what Bender wanted to do. Of the 170 cities that were eligible to apply for the grant, 50 applied and Rochester was awarded the top grant, $641,480, in late 2004.

The project uses the SkyScraper DataFab component to ingest content from various sources as program operators for ETIN’s six different channels (police, fire, hospital, etc.) drag and drop files into appropriate folders. The SkyScraper DataHub component allocates appropriate bandwidth for the content and integrates it into the DTV data stream.

Around the region, a DataReceiver card in a single computer at each location captures the data and can store it for use in that location’s local intranet and for display on one of the LCD screens.

It may be the bleeding edge of public safety datacasting technology, but Bender kept in mind that his firefighters weren’t all that crazy about computers and sometimes handle their equipment a little roughly. But everyone can ma-nage a remote control, and the TV is on nonstop in many firehouses.

Bachofen agreed. “You don’t have to do anything on the client side, which is really important because some of the folks on the client side might not be technical people,” he said. “It has to be simple on the client side.”

THREE MODES

It doesn’t get much simpler than the most basic of the three modes in Rochester’s ETIN. The “automatic” mode essentially sends non-critical information—training videos, safety reminders, and timely updates such as weather reports and staffing notes—to the client for display in a continuous loop. The idea is that firefighters will see some of the short clips—on effective CPR, or a particular rescue technique—enough times that they will absorb the knowledge. This mode also includes an information crawl at the bottom of the screen. As Bender puts it, it’s pretty much like watching television, and it could include some fun features, like trivia and quizzes, to help keep viewers interested.

The second mode is an on-demand world, where a local station can pull down timely information—instructions on how to deal with a particular event, for example, or a needed training course. Since firefighters tend to be leaving the station frequently without notice, the on-demand model works well for them.

The third, emergency mode, would override the other modes on all receivers so everyone is literally on the same page. And responders heading to the scene of the emergency would have the appropriate maps or other crucial data.

Bender beat the pavement to win local support. “One of the big sells was to tie in all the agencies together, have this interoperability,” he said. “We had to go out and we took the show on the road. We went to chiefs, their monthly meetings, and we showed them what we had: ‘We’re going to purchase this for you, we’re going to install it for you, it’s basically a plug-and-play.’”

For WXXI’s initial ETIN launch, Bender will begin with about 20 sites (mostly Rochester Fire Department locations), iron out bugs, and expand to the other 80 or so sites across a 75-mile radius. Other agencies, including the state police and neighboring Livingston County, have expressed interest in joining up as well.

The cost, said Bachofen, runs roughly $2,000 to $3,000 per receiver, depending on features, and the SkyScraper backbone runs around $12,000 to $15,000.

Looking ahead, Bender is interested in using WiMax technology for backchannel communication. In addition to being able to have two-way communications, Bender wonders, wouldn’t it be great to be able to shoot a scene on video and stream it right back to the hub for retransmission to other emergency responders?

The project is far from the first program to use public TV’s resources for public safety needs.

WNET in New York has demonstrated, along with the Fire Department of New York, a system of “Smart Nets,” including two-way WiMax mobile communications, over the station’s Educational Broadband Service (EBS) frequencies around 2.5 GHz, formerly known as the Instructional Television Fixed Service Band. Unlike DTV datacasting, which generally blasts out 8-VSB signals one-way, broadcasters are allowed to modulate their EBS signal in different ways, such as WiMax’s mobile two-way 802.16e flavor.

The WNET focus is on front-line responders like police and fire units. “They, for their communications needs, require, number one, mobility and, number two, two-way communications,” said Stephen Carroll-Cahnmann, director of Digital Convergence for WNET.

He said the demonstration and research project, now in its “end game” has been enormously successful in showing the viability of WiMax technology over EBS to serve public safety needs.

“Our argument has been, there’s these frequencies in the hands of public stations who are dying to sit down with public safety,” he said. “There’s some new technology, and public stations are at the forefront of pushing through this model.”

Los Angeles public station KLCS is datacasting to 25 high schools and eight middle schools, reaching about 40 percent of the of the high schools in the city. These schools have access to high-bit-rate streaming channels (1 Mbps each) over the air with near-video-on-demand on every computer in each school, according to Alan Popkin, director of TV engineering and technical operations at KCLS.

And datacasts could increase rapidly in the future. Triveni Digital says SkyScraper technology is already deployed in public stations reaching half of all viewers in the country.