Wireless Watches the Gas

By Eric Griffith

February 03, 2005

Oregon's stockpile of deadline chemical weapons headed for the incinerator is protected by a 700 square mile Wi-Fi network.

A year after taking the network live, systems integrator EZ Wireless is confident that its wireless infrastructure for first responders in eastern Oregon is keeping the public safe.

The 700 square mile network operates across several cities, including Hermiston, Stanfield, Boardman, Irrigon, Echo and Umatilla, under the auspices of Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP) at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, which is in turn run by the Morrow County Office of Emergency Management. The depot was built by the U.S. Army at a cost of about a half-billion dollars.

According to Brad Kincaid, manager of technology at EZ Wireless, "16 to 20 percent of the nastiest stuff for wars that we've made lives out there." The depot exists to incinerate chemical weapons; just last month, it eradicated 1,300 sarin-filled M55 rockets. The Umatilla Depot is one of only eight sites around the country storing the nation's chemical weapons stockpiles. 7.4 million pounds of nerve gas and blister agent were moved there in the 1960s, according to EastOregonian.info, a Web page devoted to covering the depot, including a running tally of the rockets processed each week and to date.

There's always the chance of an incident at the depot. The disposal depot has only been open for a few months, and has already undergone problems with personnel and equipment that have caused short shutdowns and required retraining of employees. For example, in December of last year, a trace amount of sarin nerve agent vapor was detected in a depot storage structure, according to EastOregonian.info. It was not a threat to the general public, but in such a case, first responders need to be able to communicate while on the move. That required installing some kind of wireless infrastructure.

In 2003, EZ Wireless was contracted to come up with the solution. This week last year, the "Watermelon Capital of the World" held a ceremony at the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Oregon to signify the launch of the network. It's been running ever since, providing communications for responders in the area, 24/7 video surveillance, and other benefits.

The network is built with equipment from Proxim , using a mix of its long-distance Tsunami Broadband Wireless hardware and ORiNOCO access points for end-user Wi-Fi connections. It took EZ Wireless a while to settle on the Proxim hardware. "We've taken out more wireless than most people ever put in," says Kincaid. "We've played with everything." Proxim's APs, along with the ability to offer backhaul, sealed the deal—EZ Wireless liked being able to deal with a single vendor.

It is interesting that they went with a more traditional provider like Proxim, when most municipal deployments these days seem to go to vendors with a wireless mesh topology to make the infrastructure self-configuring. Kincaid says the company remains agnostic and that mesh is interesting, but that the proprietary nature of some solutions kept them from using it. Sticking with Wi-Fi standards and equipment tested for interoperability was "a huge big deal" for this project.

It sounds like they've accomplished some interesting things that you wouldn't associate with most wireless networks. The Wi-Fi cloud spans even the highways between cities, and Kincaid says "you can drive from town to town and not lose a connection," even driving north into Washington state along the Columbia River. The network was designed to handle hand-off between 66 towers with long-range antennas. You might notice a dropoff with a voice over Wi-Fi call or if you're watching streaming, unbuffered digital video.

The network sits almost adjacent to a 3,700 square mile region of Washington state that's getting residential Wi-Fi-based broadband connections from the Columbia Rural Electric Association, using equipment from Vivato.

Back in Oregon, the backend is all designed by EZ Wireless. It created the Incident Response Information System (IRIS), a Geographical Information System (GIS) for emergency personnel that can gather everything from GPS and weather data to a reference database about the area to get such items as building floor plans. IRIS can combine it all with a "dispersion model" to determine where a plume of gas from the chemical depot might go if something goes awry.

Security is, of course, paramount for CSEPP, and laptops and PDAs can't log in without using 256-bit encryption and a two-factor authentication that meets the medical HIPAA standard and the government FIPS 140-2 standard.

And all this is delivered with minimal bandwidth use on the network. "We've seen responders do database lookups, view cameras, etc., even worked with voice communications a little bit, all in 2 megabits [per second]," says Kincaid. The network is rated to provide as much as 15Mbps on the backhaul.

EZ doesn't just run the network: it also provides equipment for the emergency services in the area, and does training for people who use it.

Third parties could use the network to provide, for instance, Internet connections to residential customers (and some private citizens do have access), but for now, Kincaid says, the goal is to make sure the network works flawlessly for CSEPP and emergency services.

The Oregonian says that work on eradicating the Sarin gas rockets is expected to run through at least 2009, but it's unlikely the depot will stop work at that point: the state of Oregon is gearing up to fight off the possibility that the US Army might import even more weapons from other states. So EZ Wireless will probably be helping keep an eye on the depot for some time to come.

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