FAA rolls out wireless paging system

Federal Aviation Administration employees have a new, wireless paging system at their fingertips.

The FAA has extended a contract with Emergin Inc. to provide software that enables agency staff to send real-time messages from their desktops to a slew of wireless devices, including pagers, mobile phones and personal digital assistants. The technology is used to broadcast trouble reports such as radio outages.

Emergin recently outfitted the agency's three operations control centers (OCCs), which monitor the National Airspace System (NAS) infrastructure. Now Emergin will bring its services to the 29 systems operation centers (SOCs), which are OCC support organizations that also track NAS navigational aids.

"They determine what to do when there's a problem with the equipment," said William Shuman, a spokesman for the FAA. "We're doing this all the time to monitor the NAS in a specific area."

Consider the following scenario: Lightning strikes a radio antenna, causing a power outage. With Emergin WirelessOffice, an SOC employee can immediately alert a maintenance worker and any affected air traffic controllers to the time and location of the power failure with a single text message.

One centralized system maintains a log of sent, received and acknowledged messages, which can be relayed as needed or on a regular, reminder basis.

The FAA is not the only federal agency to realize the benefits of wireless communication in an emergency. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, several major projects have gained momentum. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for instance, is leading the relatively new Wireless Public Safety Interoperable Communications program, or Project SafeCom. The initiative's objective is to speed public safety communications at all governmental levels. Meanwhile, the fledgling Transportation Security Administration has included wireless capabilities in the billion-dollar task order for its information technology infrastructure.

The FAA turned to Emergin in hopes of improving its response time to problems, according to Michael McNeal, Emergin's president and chief executive officer. The FAA's previous supplier went out of business, according to McNeal.

The new technology works regardless of the wireless network carrier or device. "With the click of a button, it could immediately notify all staff members," he said. It interfaces with the agency's event-tracking system, making use of the existing infrastructure — another bonus.

"It's an all-for-one," said Heather Awsumb, a spokeswoman for the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union that represents the SOCs' and OCCs' employees. "It lets them get hold of anybody at anytime."

Already, the OCCs, located in Atlanta, Kansas City and San Diego, have recorded results. Out of 250 messages, the average response time dropped from an hour to eight minutes, according to McNeal.

"It improved their throughput significantly," he said. "It's a pretty dramatic improvement in response time."

Emergin WirelessOffice's speed is due, in large part, to its service engine technology, which was acquired from Motorola Inc. in 1999, according to McNeal.

The software also has a security component and could be deployed in the case of a bomb or bioterrorist threat, he said.

"We can use it for anything," Shuman said, but he emphasized that the FAA doesn't consider it a security system.

Emergin has a one-year, $86,000 contract for the SOCs, he said. It has five years to work on the OCCs, however, and plans to add features to the core product by Sept. 30, including an additional text, two-speech engine that will allow voice messaging, according to McNeal.

TSA, which also has a presence in the nation's airports, has been "bootlegging" the FAA's system, but hasn't officially adopted it, he said, adding, "We had rolled out our product when TSA was just being formed. They're still in the planning stages."

The military, Defense Department and FEMA also are taking a look at the software, he said.

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Getting the word out

Emergin Inc.'s WirelessOffice software:

* Enables real-time wireless messaging for business and government applications.

* Supports more than 10,000 messages per hour.

* Delivers messages at the push of a button to as many as 1,000 wireless devices, including pagers, mobile phones and personal digital assistants.

* Sends messages as needed or on a regular, reminder basis.

* Maintains a log of sent, received and acknowledged messages.

* Will interface with event-tracking systems.

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