Monthly Archives: September 2008

GATR Deployment: Day 6 (9/26/2008)

This morning we woke up and arranged the firehouse for the FEMA folks again.  They sent a crew of five people to get people registered online and another two to get people signed up for blue roofs (big tarps for temporary roofing.  The system was working great.  At 10:20 I got a call from Suzanne Novak asking if we could get another system over to Oak Island quickly. They had a group of seven FEMA folks trying to get people registered and their standard issue Verizon aircards were not working since the cell coverage was non-existent.  Phil and I jumped to action, we deflated the 1.8m antenna, packed up a wifi system, and hopped in the truck.  Oak Island was about a 25 minute drive from Smith Point.  We arrived at the Oak Island Baptist Church, location of FEMA and food distribution, at 11:20.  Phil wanted experience setting up the antenna by himself, so he asked me to pretend to be an indigenous helper in a foreign country.  Phil had the antenna set up and on the satellite at 12:15.  Here is where we deployed at Oak Island.







Then we ran into our problem.  The wireless access point we grabbed required a username and password.  I forgot them both and the sheet they were on was back in Smith Point, so we reset the wireless.  We had to directly connect the laptop into the modem to look up the username and password for the reset Linksys – of course its “admin”, “admin”.  We set the box back up, logged into the Linksys and set up the static IP.  For some reason, the modem was not DHCP enabled.  We tried to browse the web, and it still didn’t work.  The Linksys required a valid DNS.  Neither Phil nor I could remember one.  With the extremely weak cell signal I had, I texted about five friends back home asking for a valid DNS.  Messages with,, came back eventually. Once we set that we were in.  I can tell you I will always remember these three DNS numbers.  So, by 1PM the GATR 1.8m wireless system was operational.  The FEMA people used the signal to register about seven people. 


Here are some pictures from Oak Island.  The inside of the church was destroyed, but the Spirit was alive outside.  Check out the mud and mold on the floor of the church.  The surge brought in the sludge and it requires the firemen to come in with hoses and blast the mud out of the house. 




Here are some other pictures from the point in Oak Island.  Many of the houses are completely gone – only concrete slabs and pilings.  The community was a mix of retired folks, Vietnamese boat workers, and Hispanics.  Oak Island was the hardest hit area in Chambers County.






Back at Smith Point, Caleb was operating the 2.4m GATR system.  Smith Point had a steady stream of people all day.  Many of the people who evacuated were returning home and coming through the firehouse/community center to register with FEMA.  The 2.4m GATR system worked perfectly.  Caleb had a busy day helping unload ice and making a run with the fire department.  (Caleb is a volunteer fireman in Moscow, Idaho.)


We decided to spend the night in Oak Island, so I went back to Smith Point to help Caleb pack the system up.  The community was sad to see us leave.  Lois wanted my Auburn chair.  I was going to give it to her, but she insisted that we make a fair trade, so she brought me a Texas chair that she won in a fishing contest last year.  The president of the firehouse, Fred Anderson and his wife Jennifer(?), thanked us over and over again.  I really enjoyed the Community of Smith Point.  There are some very dedicated leaders in that community.  As a result of the way the community operated out of the firehouse, many of the Hispanics asked if they could help as volunteers with the firehouse in the future.  They are an example of neighbor helping neighbor in a time of crisis – where everyone was treated equal independent of  socioeconomic background, age, citizenship status, occupation, native language, etc.  Smith Point is a great community, and I am glad I had the opportunity to serve there.



Tomorrow we pack up and head to GATR headquarters in Huntsville, AL.



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GATR Deployment: Day 5 (9/25/2008)

Smith Point is a small community on the bay.  A majority of the population is Hispanic, and the rest are cattle ranchers and retirees (most teachers from public schools).  Phil, Caleb, and I spent the night in the firehouse with Lois.  She is a lady in her 70s that loves to talk.  We worked until about 12:30AM getting the antenna deployed and the wireless and voip phone system working.  We woke up at 7AM.  About five people in the community brought their laptops in to check email.  At 9AM seven people from Alltel (FEMA) showed up.  We got them configured on a secure wireless network.  The people of the community started rolling in. FEMA needed interpreters to help with the registrations process.  A few of the community ladies at the firehouse went out and recruited a college girl and a high school girl (school doesn’t start back until next week).  These girls were a huge help.  Red Cross delivered lunch at 11:30AM.  This brought a large crowd in to register with FEMA.  (The FEMA folks did not want to be photographed, so one of them stood up and visually blocked the other employees.)




Two of the voip phones worked right off the bat.  The two CISCO phones had some issues working with the Digium box.  Caleb spent about an hour with the service provider and with the tech help at Digium.  He got the problem figured out.  All four phones could dial out.  We are a lot closer to having a disaster relief kit for the next disaster deployments.  There are a few other pieces that we need to add including: analog phone line (FEMA property assessment touch pads with only connect through analog phone line) and a higher gain antenna and a telescoping tower to provide wifi over a greater geographic area.  The experience we are getting exercising the system in disaster areas is invaluable. 


The clients for FEMA slowed down after lunch.  They left at 5:00PM.  The plan was to leave the GATR system in Smith Point.  Half of the FEMA team was headed to Oak Island.  The FEMA mobile RV was moving from Anahuac to Oak Island to support the group there.  We enjoyed the rest of the evening getting to know the people of Smith Point.  We spent an hour after dinner getting their satellite internet hooked up.  One person grabbed the antenna, cables, and modem from their house before the storm hit.  The antenna was put up on a metal fence post.  We used our Spectrum Analyzer to get the antenna pointed properly.  This will be connected to a wireless AP once we leave.  The firehouse/community center is the gathering place for the town.  The people there are very supportive of one another. 


Someone brought a small grey kitten up to the firehouse.  It was found floating on a piece of wood.  Lois was pushing the cat on me and Caleb.  The cat jumped from cot to cot all night picking at our heads.  I am not too keen on driving 12 hours with a little kitty picking at my head.  Someone else will give “Ike” a home.


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GATR Deployment: Day 4 (9/24/2008)

We met Keith Stone (HISG) and Suzanne Novak (FEMA) at the Anahuac deployment site around 9AM.  I showed the technology to Keith.  He saw the application of the technology immediately.  He has been on deployments around the world and has worked with setting up large antenna.  He could not believe that a 2.4m antenna can weigh 17 pounds.  He saw that this type of system belongs on the fringes where the infrastructure is severely damaged.  He said he would contact other agencies in the Bolivar and Galveston to see if we could be of use to them.  Suzanne Novak also said she would contact other locations within FEMA to see if there is a need elsewhere.  Until we heard back, we stayed put at the American Legions building.  The extra time was good, we were able to get our voip phone system up and running.  The basic architecture we are using is the following:  The antenna connects to an iDirect modem.  Modem connects to a CISCO switch, Digium Asterick box, wifi access point, and LAN access are all connected to the CISCO Switch.  We have a bank of four voip phones set up through the Digium box (Charlie, your Digium product works well J).  We now have a disaster relief deployment system.  Nothing like putting a system together in the field on the fly…


I had not heard back from Keith or Suzanna at 3PM, so I went looking for them.  I met Suzanne in the parking lot of the Chambers County Courthouse.  She was with the FEMA regional director.  The mobile RV was heading to Oak Island, an area with heavy damage.  Suzanne suggested that we go set up in Smith Point, TX.  This is a smaller community that FEMA was not going to get to service since the mobile site was heading elsewhere.  The plan was for us to set up internet and phone for the AllTech folks (FEMA subcontractors) to start getting the people in this area registered.  Smith Point was hit really hard.  This is where we need to be deployed.


I drove Phil down to the Firehouse in Smith Point.  The mosquitoes were unbelievable.  The marshy land is fertile for mosquito breeding.  Here are a few pictures from the drive down. 




The people at the firehouse were confused.  They were told that FEMA was not coming to their area.  We told them that they were going to be here tomorrow morning.  Phil set up the 1.8m antenna while I went back to get to get Caleb and the 2.4m antenna (and Cheeseburgers from the Panther Den).  Smith Point is about a 25 minute drive from Anahuac.  Caleb and I got back to Smith Point at about 8PM.  We told the people at the firehouse what the big balls do.  “High Speed wireless internet, we only have dial up here.”  I thought they were going to kill the fatted calf for us.  Very gracious people.  Here are a few pictures of Caleb and Phil setting up at night.  We got both systems on satellite with screaming hot connections. 




There is an alligator living in the culvert about feet away from the GATR systems.  Here is a map of the area. 

The gator stuck his tail out last night.  The morning before last he was all the way out looking for one of the feral cats.  He is about 7 feet in length.  A man in the firehouse was telling a story of finding a 16 footer underneath his house.  GATR, meet gator…  I find it very ironic that GATR was deployed to the gator capital of Texas.

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GATR Deployment: Day 3 (9/23/2008)

Let me start by thanking Danielle for her comments on my last post.  She is in training to take a job with FEMA.  I hope my last post did not come across as denigrating FEMA in anyway.  They are in this area and working very hard to assess damage and get housing assistance to those in need.  We are here with an ad hoc satcom network capability trying to provide internet and voip phone to any agency (local, state, federal) that needs it.  Danielle has additional comments on her blog. 


The GATR system ran off our little generator all night.  Pressures looked good, antenna was anchored well, and the modem was running.  We had the wireless internet working, but the voip phone capability required one more piece of hardware that one of the MAF guys was bringing.  


The FEMA mobile recovery unit showed up around 9AM.  They have an RV with a small satellite dish on top to provide their own network for phone and web access.  We helped them get chair and tables set up.  The mobile unit is set up with a bank of phones for people to talk to FEMA representatives about housing assistance and property damage.  Their mobile unit is self contained.  Some of the people used our wireless (FEMA, rightfully so, does not offer public web access).  We talked to the FEMA IT guy about our disaster relief solution.  He was really impressed with the technology.  He took my contact info and said he was going to try to get us hooked up with the FEMA technology folks.  We would love to demo our system to other FEMA officials.



Now that FEMA is here with their self-contained mobile system, we were not adding much value to the situation.  The GATR system really needs to be out on the fringes were the infrastructure is severely reduce or gone.  The power came back to this area around 7PM.  There are many, many needs that remain in Anahuac, but Satcom internet and voip are not one of them.  I called my contact at HISG to ask him if there were any other areas that are in need to communications, maybe those closer to Galveston.  He said he was going to contact other groups in the more devastated areas and get back with me.  He was planning on being in Anahuac tomorrow morning, so we decided we would make a plan then.  This is good.  It gives us time to get our entire network up and running.  Caleb Pal, with MAF joined us last night.  He brought a Cisco router and three Voip phones.  We should have a full disaster relief system running tomorrow once we get everything configured.

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GATR Deployment: Day 2 (9/22/2008)

The day began in a hurry-up-and-wait mode.  The people at the courthouse wanted us to deploy with the FEMA group at the American Legion building.  There was a lot going on and FEMA wasn’t moving from the courthouse anytime soon.  I got tired of waiting on them, so I went and set up the 2.4m antenna in an open spot behind the AL building.  Here are a few pictures showing the stages of setup. 






I was set up on the Horizons-2 (74-W) satellite by noon.  For the next four hours I waited for FEMA to show up.  I went inside the AL building to see if anyone could use free wireless access.  The American Red Cross is operating this site providing food, washing machines, and bedding for over 50 people.  There were some FEMA employees inside the building.  They were trying to access the web through aircards, and weren’t very successful.  Most of the cell towers were damaged and cold only provide limited coverage of the area.  They were able to upload many of their forms through the wireless link.  Other than that it was pretty slow.  Here are three of my new friends (George, Trey, and JaCorey).  They were staying in the shelter and really wanted to check their myspace pages. 



There were a lot of people that stop by to ask what that “balloon lookin thing” is (pretty standard question for us).  The sheriff and his wife came by and asked if they could bring their laptop back to check email. 


At five PM, I was met by Philip Wilson, a volunteer from Mission Aviation Fellowship.  His is a volunteer that is trained at providing technology solution to devastated areas.  He is a really sharp guy that has responded and volunteered at disasters all over the world.  That evening we spent about an hour talking with the water truck driver who said we couldn’t leave until after he left because he was using our wifi to surf the web in his truck.  Interesting fellow – he drives around 250K miles per year.  That’s one tough job.  Anyway, tomorrow is a new day with new opportunities.  I hope we can make a greater contribution to the relief effort.


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GATR Deployment: Day 1 (9/21/2008)

I woke up at 5AM to finish packing all of my gear in the truck.  I was told to be as self sufficient as possible, so I packed everything in my brother’s hiking backpack including his sleeping bag and my tent (Kevin, I forgot to ask – I hope you don’t mind).  I had to make a stop at Walmart on the way out of town to get food and pad locks and chain to lock the expensive equipment together and tether it to my truck.  I was on the road by 6:30AM.  I had one stop in Jackson, Mississippi for lunch and another stop in outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  I took a picture of the gear in the back of my truck to make a point.

Here is a picture of two complete communication systems including a 2.4m and a 1.8m diameter antennas (stowed in the black cases).  See how nicely both systems fit in the back of my truck.  I passed many other communications vehicles towing single 1.2m antennas very slowly.  I could have checked both GATR systems on an airplane, (something you cannot do with other antennas this size)…but I digress.



I arrived in Anahuac at 6:30PM with a sore back.  Driving through the county I saw twisted buildings, trees on houses, trees on cars, and cattle everywhere.  Here is a picture I snapped on the way into town. 



Once in Anahuac, I met Mike K., the Direction of Communications at the Courthouse.  He introduces me to the County Judge and other government workers that have been working logistics all week.  Mike took me to the deployment site so I could check it out to make sure we has a good look angle to the satellites.  He chuckled and said all the obstructions were removed last week.  Sure enough, flat land with no trees = great look at the satellite.  Since we didn’t know exactly where the FEMA trailer was going to be placed, we decided to wait until the morning to set up the GATR antennas. 


I got to spend the night in the courthouse.  I showered and then watched the Packers-Cowboys game with two employees that have been working hard all week.  They had some amazing stories to tell about the storm – All the cattle that drowned in the storm surge, cattle that had to be tended to for eating salt soaked grass, a person that had to get on the roof and hold on to the chimney in 100+ mph winds because the surge flooded his house, rescuing people who stayed in houses they were warned to get out of, …  What is remarkable is that nobody died as a result of the storm in Chambers County.  Nice folks that have been spending every hour of the day for eight straight days to make sure the search, rescue, and recovery go smoothly.


Here is my sleeping arrangements for the evening.  Not bad, although I think they can hang meat up here – It’s freezing!


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GATR Deployment: Hurricane Ike Relief


Last week was a busy week at GATR.  On Saturday (9/13/2008) I participated in a conference call with the Humanitarian International Services Group (HISG) in regards to destruction from Hurricane Ike in the Galveston, Texas area.  They are aware of the capabilities that the GATR inflatable antenna system provides for disaster relief.  At that point crews on the ground were assessing the problem and forming needs lists for the different areas affected by the hurricane.  Thursday night I sent an email back to HISG stating that GATR is still ready to deploy when needed.  I also stated how I saw the GATR system fitting into a group operationally.  Here is the excerpt from my email explaining how the GATR Com System can help:


The GATR Coms system is built around a lightweight, inflatable 1.8m or 2.4m diameter antenna.  When deflated for transport, the GATR antenna weighs less than 17 pounds and fits in a backpack. (Very large antenna, very small transport package)  The coms gear weighs a little bit more, but overall, the entire system weighs less than 70 pounds.  I am going to bring the system with me on an airplane.  There are no other 2.4m diameter antennas that can be carried with you on an airplane.  The large antenna aperture allows for high bandwidth communications such as Voice over IP phone system and internet.  The light weight makes the system easy to deploy and redeploy as needs change.  The way I see the system used is to deploy it with a strategic partner with a command staging post in an area with little to no infrastructure.  The comms will allow the group to perform logistics, coordinate with other groups outside the devastated area, send/receive data, and give volunteers an opportunity to check personal email and communicate with friends and family members. 


HISG passed the email around to different organizations.  The Chambers County Communications Director responded and said they desperately need wireless access.  Chambers County was on the dirty side of the hurricane, so they had to deal with high winds, and a huge storm surge.  It is estimated that 80% of the structures in the county were damaged (some minor, other catastrophic).  The residents who lost their houses are staying at the American Legions Building in Anahuac.  FEMA is setting up a trailer on Monday morning behind the AL building to start helping the residents of the county.  We are supplying the internet access and voip phone lines to the FEMA trailer.  We are also providing a wifi cloud to the RV park adjacent to the AL building.  The RV park is where all of the itinerant relief workers will be staying.  Mission Aviation Fellowship is sending three guys to help administer the network.  These guys have been trained on the GATR system and are wizards on the network end.  I am looking forward to shadowing them and learning a thing or two on the network side.


I am excited to be leading this deployment effort.  Saturday (9/20/2008) was spent at our Huntsville facility getting two complete systems put together for this deployment.  We had new modems that needed to get configured and brought into the network for verification before we left.  Also, since I am relatively new to deploying the system, I had to set up both systems and do all the communications with the NOC to get access to the satellite.  I got both systems in the network with a little work.  I have a feeling I am going to learn a lot on this trip.

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