Montana State University

University works to improve rural emergency communication

March 14, 2007 -- MSU News Service


Montana State University researchers (left to right) Jian Tang, Doug Galarus and Richard Wolff are developing a mobile communications network for emergency responders in rural areas. (WTI photo by Carla Little.)   High-Res Available

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The Department of Homeland Security has awarded Montana State University $300,000 to study wireless communication networks that could aid law enforcement and medical personnel in rugged and rural areas.

The grant grew out of a request for help from the Hot Springs County Sheriff's Office in northwest Wyoming. In recent years, the county has experienced several emergencies in mountainous areas where personnel could not communicate with one another using normal radio frequencies.

"We have missing links in our communications systems," said Dave Larson, Hot Springs County undersheriff. "We want to close those links and strengthen our ability to share time-sensitive information."

The research will be a collaborative effort between MSU's Western Transportation Institute and the university's departments of computer science and electrical engineering as well as public safety agencies in northwestern Wyoming.

The multi-disciplinary research team will investigate a technology known as MANET, which stands for Mobile Ad-hoc Network. A MANET is a network of computers that can automatically start communicating when they are close enough to one another to be in wireless range.

In the Wyoming example, law enforcement and other emergency vehicles would be equipped with portable computers and radio equipment similar to a Wi-Fi router. When two or more vehicles are close enough, the network forms by itself, and the vehicles can "talk" to one another and share data back and forth. Furthermore, if one vehicle is in contact with dispatch or headquarters, all of the vehicles in the network will then be able to communicate with that office.

"One of the great things about a MANET is that it is not only self-forming, it is also self-healing," said Doug Galarus, one of three principal investigators on the project. "In other words, the network will remain operable regardless of the arrival and departure of individual emergency vehicles."

Researchers believe that a MANET may be able to overcome some of the communications challenges in a rural area, such as large distances, difficult terrain, and lack of infrastructure.

"MANET technology is rapidly evolving, and there has been extensive research into wireless networks," said Richard Wolff, one of the principal investigators and a professor of electrical engineering. Wolff also serves as the Gilhousen Communications Chair at MSU. "In spite of these intense efforts, very little attention has been directed to how these technologies might be applied to public safety needs in rural areas."

In the first phase of the project, the team will meet with the Hot Springs County Sheriff's Office and related public safety agencies, including police, fire, search and rescue and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to get a better understanding of what types of emergencies the network will be needed for and how it must perform.

Researchers in the MSU computer science department will compare these requirements with communications technologies that are currently available, then develop and test software specifications that help fill in the gaps.

"We'll take the most promising network models, and adapt them so that responders can connect - and stay connected - over long distances and in rugged terrain," said Jian Tang, one of the principal investigators and assistant professor of computer science at MSU.

By early 2008, the research team hopes to field test a system in Hot Springs County. Local public safety officials will provide feedback on its performance.

The project has national significance, said Galarus, a senior research associate at WTI. The Department of Homeland Security is interested in this research because it addresses some of the problems faced by emergency responders following Hurricane Katrina.

"The communications challenges faced by Hot Springs County are common throughout Wyoming, Montana, and similar regions," Galarus said. "By meeting the specific needs of Hot Springs County, we hope to develop a model applicable to rural areas around the country."

Contact: Doug Galarus, Western Transportation Institute at (406) 994-5268 or via email at dgalarus@coe.montana.edu.