Video conferencing system helps emergency response teams mobilize

Transportation and emergency management officials in Houston coordinate emergency response teams using the LifeSize HD video conferencing system its UC pros recently deployed.

In a public safety agency, emails and phone calls are fine for communication, but they don’t reveal conditions on the ground during an emergency. Officials at Houston TranStar, a regional government agency that coordinates transportation and emergency management services for the Greater Houston area, needed more than voice and text from field personnel in order to decide how to respond to traffic jams or hurricanes. Now they make those decisions in 1080p with the high-definition (HD) video conferencing system the agency recently deployed.  

"We're able to develop a plan of action quickly if someone is able to see exactly what's taking place on the road and make a better assessment for what people and equipment we need [to respond]," said Bobby Richards, senior network administrator at Houston TranStar, a consortium that includes the Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, the city of Houston and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County.

The four local agencies pool their resources to monitor and respond to traffic, weather and emergency conditions on Houston-area roads. Most days, that means providing drivers real-time traffic information and dispatching vehicles to clear debris or accidents causing congestion, according to TranStar's site. The consortium also works with partner agencies to clear the roads if a hurricane, flood, industrial explosion or terrorist attack were to strike.

We're able to develop a plan of action quickly if someone is able to see exactly what's taking place on the road.

Bobby Richards
Senior Network Administrator, Houston TranStar

Richards recently deployed eight room-based HD video conferencing systems and desktop video conferencing from LifeSize, enabling field technicians to communicate with officials back at headquarters over an encrypted 3G connection, using a ruggedized Sierra Wireless hotspot and a laptop with a webcam.

So when a rare ice storm struck Houston in early 2011, TranStar's officials and technicians used their HD video conferencing system to mobilize.

"One of the city directors was able to be in a conference room and could [use video conferencing to] see a lot of our guys out on the roadway and say, 'We have a lot of ice out on this overpass. Throw some additional salt on it,'" Richards said.

Ice storms don't strike Houston every day, but TranStar continues to get mileage out of its video conferencing system by using it when coordinating responses to routine traffic snares, he said.

Officials also use the room-based units for region-wide meetings, requiring only a 1 Mbps Internet connection to broadcast in 1080p, Richards said. The video conferencing system has saved those attendees countless hours that would ordinarily be spent driving in from the seven different counties they represent, he said.

"It's not waiting on a disaster," Richards said. "This system is being used every day."

Securing video conferencing systems: Keep data away from the bad guys

As a governmental agency, TranStar had strict security requirements for its video conferencing system, Richards said. When officials are meeting over video to plan a disaster response, it's critical that sensitive information doesn't fall into the wrong hands -- namely, a hacker or terrorist who could use that knowledge to their advantage, he said.   

"We don't want anyone to be able to just [intercept] those meetings," Richards said. "[We need] to secure those meetings and encrypt those meetings ... so that no one is just jumping into them."

TranStar had previously deployed a video conferencing system, but it didn't meet the consortium's security needs, said Richards, who declined to name the prior vendor. TranStar must often coordinate with external agencies during an emergency, but its legacy video conferencing system couldn't securely receive incoming calls from outside its private network, he said.

The legacy system would have required him to keep multiple ports open on his firewall for outgoing and incoming calls; LifeSize's video conferencing system only requires Richards to keep one port open, supporting incoming calls from its partner agencies using any H.323 system or desktop video conferencing software. In addition to encryption and virtual private network (VPN) tunnels, users also must have a password to join a meeting.

"A lot of companies don't want to open up a lot of ports on their firewall and expose their networks to whatever viruses out there in the world," Richards said. "People are trying to hack [enterprise] networks from China and Russia -- you see that activity on a daily basis -- so from a security standpoint, having that one lone port open [ensures that] you're able to control and know what the application is."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, Senior News Writer.

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