Gulf Coast Agencies Build Network for Oil Spill
Wednesday, June 16, 2010 | Comments

Image courtesy GOHSEP
Less than a month after the Gulf Coast oil spill began, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) could access a 700/800 MHz interoperable radio network featuring fingertip roaming throughout the Gulf Coast region. Building off the Louisiana state radio network, Brant Mitchell, deputy director, Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP), reached out to Mississippi, Alabama and Texas to create an interoperable regional network.
“The really cool thing is now someone in Austin, Texas, can communicate over radio to someone in Pensacola, Fla.,” Mitchell said. “We think it’s the largest self-sustaining radio network in the country.”
The Louisiana Wireless Information Network (LWIN) is a Motorola Project 25 (P25) 700/800 MHz digital system operational in about 90 percent of the state, with 96 percent of the affected coastal areas offering portable communications. Mitchell, who also serves as chairman of the Statewide Interoperable Executive Committee that governs LWIN, said the network has more than 51,000 users and is growing by about 1,000 users a month, making it one of the biggest systems in the country.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion on the DeepWater Horizon oil rig in April, Mitchell met with USCG Commander Keith LaPlant and offered him access to LWIN. LaPlant was familiar with the system from work the USCG had done in the area during a previous oil release, Mitchell said. The USCG’s communications system is primarily designed for boat-to-shore communications.
To accommodate the USCG, GOHSEP added another zone and installed 16 talk groups, the maximum in a single zone. “To ensure we didn’t have to touch the radios again, we went ahead and created 16 talk groups so there would be room for expansion in case additional talk groups were needed,” he said. After that, GOHSEP began working with other networks, using patches to create a regional system.
Building Gulf WIN
LWIN was first connected with Orange Beach, Ala. Alabama also operates a P25 700/800 MHz Motorola network. The connection was patched through one talk group because Orange Beach is limited to a single four-channel repeater, and Mitchell said officials didn’t want to overburden the Orange Beach radio system.
The next day talks began with Mississippi. Mississippi’s Wireless Information Network (MSWIN) also operates a Motorola P25 network. Before the incident, the states had two talk groups through a MotoBridge patch that linked state police across the borders, mainly for use during hurricane evacuations. This was expanded to four talk groups. “We only have one MotoBridge in place, which means we are limited to patching four talk groups,” Mitchell said. “We have the capability to add additional MotoBridges through a daisy chain configuration, but to date there hasn’t been a need to do this.”
Any network with overlapping coverage can use a MotoBridge hard patch to connect the networks. Overlapping networks are hardwired, making it difficult to change talk groups on the fly, but in general offer more efficiency and reliability, Mitchell said.
After talk groups were established with Orange Beach and MSWIN, Louisiana turned its focus to Texas, specifically Travis and Harris counties’ coastal areas. Both counties operate P25 mobile networks but have no overlapping coverage, so connecting the counties required an Inter Subsystem Interface (ISSI). The P25 ISSI technology allowed all 16 talk groups to connect to the LWIN network.
Motorola officials supplied the ISSI technology and were heavily involved in the entire buildout, making it all work, Mitchell said. “I honestly don’t think we’ve paid a thing for it. They’ve been helping with everything to assist with the disaster cleanup and demonstrate the capabilities of the technology,” he said.
Network Details
USCG communications was the primary purpose of the interoperable network. “We wanted to isolate some of the paths, so we created the Gulf Coast Wireless Interoperable Network (Gulf WIN),” Mitchell said.
The P25 digital 700/800 MHz network features common Gulf Coast Interoperability (GCI) talk groups to provide fingertip roaming between systems. All radio systems can use talk group GCI-1. All agencies except Orange Beach can use channels CGI-2 through CGI-5. (Mississippi and Louisiana have not hard patched CGI-5 yet.) And talk groups CGI-6 through CGI-16 can be used between Louisiana and Texas. “When using a LWIN radio, as soon as you cross the border, all you have to do is change the zone, and you’re still on Gulf WIN,” Mitchell said.
To have network access in Pensacola, Fla., the Louisiana State Police deployed a LWIN mobile tower with the help of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association (LSA). “The tower offers so many capabilities, we asked [the USCG] to tell us what they wanted it to do, and we did it,” said Chuck Hurst, task force coordinator, LSA. The tower was used to connect command and control centers throughout the region.
The mobile towers also extend coverage into the water. “We realized that our coverage maps were overly conservative. The signal range is a good 10 – 20 miles farther than we expected,” Mitchell said.
The network connects USCG to state and local responders. Mitchell estimated that there are between 400 and 500 radios using Gulf WIN, including radios issued from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), radios that Louisiana issued and units that BP purchased for the USCG.
Arkansas’s network (AWIN) is in the planning stages to connect to Gulf WIN. And BP is deploying a VHF/UHF simplex network with 14 sites to aid in the cleanup. BP hopes to have it completed by the end of the month, Mitchell said. “We have had discussions about patching [BP] into GCI-1 so both systems can talk.”
Mitchell attributed the quick creation of the Gulf WIN to leveraging aspects of a system that was already available, making the process a textbook example.
“During [Hurricane] Katrina, our radio system was overwhelmed, and as a result, there was essentially no communications,” he said. Since then, "Governor Bobby Jindal has made the completion of LWIN a top priority and over the last several years Louisiana invested $120 million on the system between infrastructure and radios, primarily from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants, FEMA recovery grants and state general funds. It’s a true success story, the way we look at it, of leveraging networks already out there to bring all three levels of government together during a crisis.” 
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