December 29, 2010

Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department uses HPWREN for emergency communications during weather emergency

By Jim Davidson, Fire Captain, Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department

Wireless connection to HPWREN at the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department.

The Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department (http://www.palomarfire.org) is a small community volunteer fire department located at 5600 feet near the top of Palomar Mountain in San Diego county, and is affiliated with the San Diego County Fire Authority. PMVFD provides fire protection and emergency medical services to the local community atop the mountain as well as the famous Palomar observatory.

On December 4th, the PMVFD station was connected to HPWREN network, via wireless link from the station to the Palomar Observatory. Until then, the station relied upon a commercial satellite internet provider, which is extremely unreliable during heavy rain or snow conditions. With Palomar Mountain being such a remote location and such a high altitude, extreme weather is fairly common. Unreliable Internet connectivity coupled with a complete lack of cell phone coverage, frequent power outages and downed phone lines made it very difficult for the department to stay informed of weather forecasts and to keep community members informed of local conditions.

On Dec 20, a series of strong storms struck the southern California area, including Palomar Mt. The mountain was hit by high winds and over 20 inches of rain, causing power outages and numerous mudslides and rockfalls on the access roads to the mountain. PMVFD personnel responded to over 15 calls for road hazards and wires down. The HPWREN system maintained full connectivity throughout the entire storm event, and was instrumental in monitoring weather forecasts, informing the public and communicating with and recalling off-duty personnel who do not live on the mountain. The recent installation of a cell-phone Femto-cell provided cell coverage at the station for emergency use and for the firefighters to use to communicate with their families.

During previous weather events, internet connectivity was always the first service to be lost. The firefighters at the station have had to use VHF voice radios as their sole means of communication with the outside world. Having reliable data connectivity allowed the department's command staff to make much more timely decisions regarding staffing and responses to conditions, as well as to communicate with other agencies (such as the county road department or the California Highway Patrol) in a much more timely manner.

The wireless radio and antenna that links to the observatory is mounted on a newly installed 55' antenna tower next to the station, which has line of sight to the water tower at the observatory where the other radio is loated. The 900Mhz radio provides about 4Mbit/second bandwidth to the station. By contrast, the satellite system provides about 1.5Mbit maximum, but with a VERY high latency due to the long distances travelled between the ground links and the Clarke Belt.

PMVFD would like to thank HPWREN, the Palomar Observatory, and the Cal-Fire/SDCFA team for helping to make this connection a reality. Our service to the community is enhanced by better communications and a reliable high-speed link to the outside world is invaluable.

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