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SEND Standard Approved by RTCM – Is COSPAS-SARSAT On Endangered List?

RTCMThree years ago at the RTCM Annual Meeting I made a controversial presentation titled, “What Price Your Life? Distress Alerting as a Commercial Service” You can read about that and review the presentation at: http://www.equipped.org/blog/?p=82

This presentation resulted in an invitation to give the presentation at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. I was also invited to sit on a panel discussing these devices by Canada’s Search and Rescue Secretariat at their SARScene 2008 annual conference.

I called for development of a standard for what has since become known officially as Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SENDs). Globalstar’s SPOT Satellite Messenger was first commercially viable consumer SEND, and the many issues that developed as a result of that device’s introduction into the consumer marketplace was impetus for that call to action. Without a standard in place regulating minimum performance, consumers might be enticed into buying a distress signaling device that might well not work under many circumstances.

Industry and the top level Search and Rescue community heeded that call and acting on a request from the U.S. Coast Guard, RTCM formed Special Committee 128 to develop a SEND standard in December 2008. Starting with the existing RTCM standard for PLBs, the SEND standard was developed with input from the major satellite system providers as well as all the stakeholders from Search and Rescue and manufacturers or potential manufacturers of SENDs. Yours truly was there, as usual, representing the end user, those who are trusting their lives to these devices.

At a meeting held in conjunction with the 2011 RTCM Annual Meeting on May 17, 2011, two and a half years after the inaugural SC128 meeting, the new SEND Standard was approved and will be published shortly. The U.S Coast Guard has graciously accepted responsibility for providing some manner of approval or certification authority pending incorporation of the new standard into FCC regulations, which could take years given the FCC’s glacial regulatory process. The details for that USCG process are being worked out, but this ensures that an independent authority will ensure that consumers can have confidence that SENDs built to the standard have, in fact, complied with the standard.

Another Piece of the Puzzle

NSARCThis new SEND standard is only the first step needed to ensure that consumers can have a reasonable expectation of being rescued when they initiate a distress call with a SEND. Concurrent with the development of the new SEND standard, the National Search and Rescue Committee (NSARC), the nation’s top level SAR authority, commissioned its own working group to address another part of the equation, the interface between commercial SEND manufacturers or their agents and the SAR forces that will have to actually go rescue those in distress.

The Commercial Emergency Notification and Location Devices (CENALD) working group (their concern is about more than just satellite-based devices) first effort was to develop an Interface Control Document (ICD) that defines the specific requirements for a commercial emergency call center to pass on the distress alert to the national SAR authorities. This document ensures that that critical information in these messages or phone calls is standardized in format and order so that there is much less opportunity for errors to occur and so that all parties involved know what is expected of them in the process.

The CENALD meetings were held in conjunction with SC128 meetings as most of the same parties were involved. This ICD was completed earlier this year and has been recently approved by NSARC. Upon publication of the minutes of that meeting, expected shortly, it will become official.

Next Steps

While this was going on, yet another group dealing with these devices had been formed, called ProTECTS Alliance and standing for Promotion of Two-way Emergency Communication and Tracking Systems, this was an industry group “created to foster the rapid and orderly adoption of two-way satellite personal location, alerting and messaging technologies.” Once again, you had many of the same players at the table, looking for ways to accelerate the adoption of this rapidly evolving technology into the SAR system and attempting to do so in a responsible manner. As with the CENALD working group, ProTECTS met concurrently with RTCM SC128 meetings. ProTECTS was initiated by Iridium, which made it somewhat difficult to be all-encompassing for other providers in the industry. Late last year ProTECTS became a working group under the umbrella of RTCM, making it independent from Iridium.

A key issue for ProTECTS is the other element necessary for SENDs to be accepted and reliable, the commercial emergency response coordination center (CERCC). It became clear that however well designed the SEND units themselves might be, what happens to that distress alert after it is sent out is critical to saving lives and the ultimate success of this new industry. Right now there are no standards for commercial emergency response coordination centers. Theoretically, someone could set up something in their basement and be perfectly legal, even if it did not provide the quality of service that a consumer would expect.

There evolved two major concerns. One was the actual CERCC itself and the second was the database of SAR contacts that would be notified by the CERCC to affect the rescue. This latter was an issue highlighted in the early days of SPOT when there were difficulties in that interface (since mostly overcome). It would clearly be a disadvantage, potentially fatal, if every new CERCC had to experience the same steep learning curve in developing their database of SAR contacts that GEO (SPOT’s CERCC) had to go through when they, essentially, developed the first ever CERCC.

With urging from myself and others, it was decided that ProTECTS needed to explore the best way to solve this problem, either by pooling industry resources and developing their own SAR contact database or by licensing an existing SAR contact database. It would be costly and time consuming to develop and maintain such a database, but with all of the industry participating, the cost could be shared and made affordable. On the other hand, it would seem like reinventing the wheel was certainly a waste of resources if it was possible to gain access to the GEOS database. I and the chairman of ProTects and a representative of the Coast Guard were tasked with exploring the possibility.

During the RTCM Annual Meeting an exploratory meeting was held with GEOS management, who have subsequently indicated they may be open to a licensing arrangement. Certainly, there are still many details to be worked out, but that would accelerate things significantly if an entirely new database didn’t need to be developed. I commend GEOS for being willing to approach this with an open mind, hopefully to the benefit of all parties.

That then leaves the last part of the puzzle, the CERCC itself. After much discussion, it seems settled that NSARC is probably the best organization to develop a standard for a CERCC. We have plenty of materials to draw from, including the standard for 911 call centers, the AFRCC and USCG RCCs op specs and the experience of GEOS who have indicated they are interested in participating. By developing a minimum standard of performance and training for CERCCs and then providing some ongoing certification to ensure they are operated in accordance with this standard, consumers can be assured that they stand a good chance of being rescued when they are in distress. This would close the loop in the SEND concept, providing consumers an effective and reliably consistent distress alerting alternative to the traditional COSPAS-SARSAT system.

Beginning of the End for COSPAS-SARSAT?

COSPAS-SARSATAnd, closing that loop is particularly important because of how I see the market moving. The new SENDs (devices) will be increasingly more sophisticated or less expensive or both. The value added by the tracking and messaging functions makes these devices increasingly appealing to consumers. Even with a not insubstantial annual subscription cost, consumers are turning to SENDs in droves.

And, that issue of an annual fee may well, over time, become irrelevant with regards to the distress alerting function of a SEND. I have long encouraged the SEND manufacturers and service providers to continue to provide just the emergency alerting function, even if a subscriber’s subscription has lapsed. I believe that sooner or later this will happen, either voluntarily for competitive reasons or by government fiat, just as all cell phone providers are required to pass through a 911 call, regardless of there being a current subscription or not.

The alerting advantages of 406 MHz COSPAS-SARSAT beacons are rapidly eroding with improved performance of SENDs. In terms of pure distress alerting, a 406 MHz beacon still has some advantages, but for many in the market they are not compelling advantages. Consumer uptake of these new SENDs will only continue to accelerate, for all these reasons. That poses a considerable threat to the established COSPAS-SARSAT organization, its structure and the manufacturers of the beacons that function within it. Some of these traditional COSPAS-SARSAT beacon manufacturers are already working on SENDs, seeing their future headed in that direction.

Given that COSPAS-SARSAT seems to be mired in bureaucratic morass that has gotten even worse in recent years, resulting in extraordinary bureaucratic delays in approvals and additional unnecessary expense, it is only a matter of time before they become irrelevant in the consumer world. There’s no indication that COSPAS-SARSAT management recognizes the problem, or that they might do anything about it if they did, given bureaucratic inertia.

Having said that, there just the tiniest glimmer of hope. COSPAS-SARSAT is getting a new chief and it might be that he has the vision and capability to turn around this ship before it is dashed upon the rocks. One can only hope this will occur, as it seems such a waste to see such an effective system descend into irrelevancy.

If that happens, then those bureaucrats are going to find themselves short on work, because if only those required by regulation to carry a 406 MHz beacon are buying, then the market is going to shrink significantly and innovation in 406 MHz beacons will dry up and some manufacturers may likely abandon it. Those who must buy a regulated product almost always go for low price, not performance or features.

Moreover, it is only a matter of time, in my opinion, before SENDs start being accepted as alternatives to 406 MHz beacons in regulated markets. The precedent already exists, no matter that it didn’t succeed for technical and marketing reasons years ago. The new technology is miles better, much cheaper and improving rapidly.

I will continue to work to ensure that consumers can depend upon whatever distress signaling device they settle on. You can help support this work with a contribution to the Equipped To Survive Foundation: www.equipped.org/donate.htm