Vegas PBS Prepares for Emergencies

If disaster or terror strikes Las Vegas, the city’s public broadcaster figures its DTV signal will be part of the response.
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LAS VEGAS
If disaster or terror strikes Las Vegas, the city’s public broadcaster figures its DTV signal will be part of the response.

After 9/11, Sin City elders figured their tourist and convention Mecca might someday be a target. Today, Las Vegas public broadcaster KLVX-Vegas PBS has piles of data files on buildings, people and training methods and can send specialized, secured information to laptops in 60 emergency vehicles. In case of emergency, its DTV signal can stay robust even when cell phone networks and the Internet clog.

CASINO-LEVEL SECURITY

Las Vegas casinos were leaders in surveillance and security long before 2001. After the attacks, Nevada passed laws requiring all casinos, public schools, utilities and state buildings to submit data files of blueprints, evacuation routes, hazardous materials locations and other information to the state for use by emergency responders.

“The flaw in that great legislative strategy is that first responders are in parking lots, and they don’t have a very good Internet hookup, and the Internet probably wouldn’t work anyway,” said Tom Axtell, general manager of KLVX-Vegas PBS.

About 30 stations banded together and funded a contract through the Association of Public Television Stations that was awarded to SpectraRep, based in Chantilly, Va., to marshal thinking and look for ways that DTV could help with response.

“We looked at that report, and by that time we’d learned that the state had data aggregation, but there was no way to distribute it,” said Axtell. “And we said, ‘Boy, this is written for us [public broadcasters]. We’re the only guys who can do it.’”

So, the station offered itself as a test platform for manufacturers. The station began broadcasting educational data to high schools and moved on to blueprints and training videos, slowly acquiring the needed equipment.

In September, Vegas PBS finalized acquisition of data for 330 public schools: blueprints, images from Google Earth, and gas, power and water lines—even secured lists of students and parental contacts, with plans for acquiring student pictures.

“So, should there be an emergency at the school, the kind of info that a police officer or firefighter [needs] is going to be right there,” Axtell said.

The data is backed up on a second server at the school system’s police command headquarters.

TESTING ON THE STRIP

KLVX has been busy implementing and testing the system for datacast reception throughout Las Vegas to the 60 squad cars with antennas and ATSC decoders attached to their Panasonic Toughbook laptops.

“Literally this month, we are demonstrating that it works and it works just fine,” said Axtell. “You can sit literally behind a 30-story building so that you are completely shielded from line of sight of the TV transmitter, and still get a good picture in a fire truck.”

Test crews even found the pocket inside the arc of the curved Wynn Las Vegas, and still got a picture—at least from one of the three prototype receivers they tested.

“We found some pretty distinct differences in their ability to decode the signal and to deal with multipath interference in some locations,” Axtell said.

Based on reception testing, SpectraRep recommended using the TechniSat AirStar HD5000 USB HDTV receiver. The cruisers also use 1/4 wave (unity gain) standard VHF antennas. KLVX also acquired two Dell PowerEdge 1950 file servers to house the emergency data. Another Dell server hosts the Triveni Skyscraper system that manages the datacast hub for the station, and handles encoded media feeds for Windows Media IP Video.

The KLVX system counts on being able to rearrange its bitstream as needed—to simultaneously broadcast one HD and two SD channels, along with emergency test datacasts using IP, and then to change that configuration, suspending HD or even going dark completely to viewers in order to make room for specialized data in an emergency. At press time, KLVX was anticipating the delivery of additional gear to enable a third simultaneous SD stream.

The variable bit-rate confounded a local cable operator, Axtell said, resulting in a poor signal to home cable viewers. It took a while to identify the problem and is now under control, Axtell said.

SAFETY HUB

As the Vegas PBS system moves on, responders won’t just be able to receive data; they’ll be able to produce live content for communicating back out to either the general public, or encoded for specified users.

The station already has fiber links (and is working on wireless links) to various police and fire operations centers. Those facilities can function as remote studios in times of emergency without making emergency personnel leave their command posts. The station also has open and closed circuit connections with county high schools.

So, for example, in the event of a major outbreak of a disease such as avian flu, casinos would inoculate their guests and staff and the county would attend to the general public in high schools. Since the plan also relies on volunteers to do much of the response, “We literally could have a datacast signal from the county health department to the people doing the inoculations in the high schools, with any instructions that they need to give to people,” Axtell said.

DATACASTING IN THE USA

Around the country, other public broadcasters see datacasting as a tool to fulfill their public interest mission. Largely reliant on federal grants, and requiring partnerships with major public safety bureaucracies, these projects are moving, albeit slowly.

New Jersey Network (NJN) serves a unique role as the only broadcaster able to reach the entire state. NJN began its datacasting experiments as part of a public-private partnership headed by Sarnoff Corp.

NJN’s system is rolling, with more infrastructure being built out. The station has conducted several tests, including a demo of a live video feed from a New Jersey National Guard helicopter to various receive sites, using datacasting and NJN’s statewide microwave network.

The network is also partnering with the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) at Fort Monmouth (N.J.) to test applications, including allowing CERDEC to use NJN’s towers and datacasting capacity to share information.

“We were introduced to various technology companies here in New Jersey and started to develop and actually demonstrate one of the first datacasting [systems] in the nation, and to then use it for education,” along with emergency communication, said NJN Executive Director Elizabeth Christopherson. “Part of our goal is to not only communicate with the general public but to use the full array of our technical tools to reach diverse audiences with the kinds of local and state, regional and national information they need, when they need it.”

Broadcasters are also looking ahead to cell phones and other receivers for emergency messaging. NJN and SpectraRep, along with WGBH and the National Center for Accessible Media have demonstrated a local test of EAS to people with disabilities, in which an IP-based test message was generated remotely and received over cell phones, Blackberrys and other e-mail devices.