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InfraGard Receives Emergency Communication Priority

InfraGard GETS/WPS National Coordinator Jaime Chanaga encourages you and all InfraGard members to enroll in both telecommunications programs ASAP.

One of the advantages of InfraGard Magazine is that it’s a reliable avenue through which information can be disseminated to as much of the membership as is willing to read it, and take advantage of its benefits. This quarter, we spoke with InfraGard GETS/WPS National Coordinator Jaime Chanaga, CISSP, CISA, about the GETS and WPS programs — and why it’s crucial for you to enroll in them now.

Both the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) and Wireless Priority Service (WPS) programs are administered by the Office of Emergency Telecommunications, within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, reporting directly to the president. The purpose of both programs is to provide fluid telecommunications service to first responders, government workers and some in the private sector to facilitate their ability to effectively communicate in a large-scale emergency.MEMBER NOTES

“Let’s take a hurricane hitting Florida, for example,” Chanaga supposes. “The hurricane will damage or saturate the phone networks, whether it be cellphone towers that might lose power, or whether it’s land-based switching phone network equipment that gets flooded at a switching station. When you have those natural disasters, or national security events like 9/11, people start burning up the telephone line. So when that capacity gets exceeded, you get the dreaded ‘Please try your call again later’ message, or ‘All circuits are busy’ messages. And people — especially first responders or emergency preparedness folks — can’t get their calls through. Even two-way radios go down.

“About 20-25 years ago, the government started working with the telecom companies to create what they call priority access to their networks in the event of one of these situations, whether it’s man-made or natural disasters and the phones are busy,” he continues. “The GETS card allows you as a user to basically have a special access number — kind of like the old calling cards that people used to carry around from their employers — and there’s a toll-free number or a direct-dial number they can call. They punch in their PIN number and the destination they’re calling, and then the phone company will automatically flag that dialing attempt as a priority user. It won’t necessarily cut off somebody else, but it’ll give you priority to switch you and connect your call on the first dial.”

The WPS program works a bit differently, but to similar effect. Chanaga is based in Texas — tornado country — and poses a typical hypothetical scenario. “Let’s say a tornado came through Dallas and left only one cellphone tower standing,” he suggests. “That cellphone tower has the radio frequency capacity to handle maybe 10,000 phones. But if you’re user number 11,000, you can’t connect to the cell tower. So by using a feature that’s provisioned by Homeland Security on your phone line through your wireless carrier, you can dial *272 in front of the number you’re dialing, and that tells the cellphone tower, if I have the feature enabled on my phone, that I’m a government user, and I’m invoking the priority, which, again, similar to the switching on the land-based networks, it would give me priority to connect to the next available radio channel, to that cell tower.

“As you can imagine, that’s pretty helpful for, let’s say, first responders — police, fire — or even for, say, the mayor, or the Office of Emergency Management for a city like Dallas,” Chanaga says. “It’s very helpful for them, because they can’t necessarily call up the phone company and say, ‘Help me to connect,’ or call an operator, because they might not even be able to reach an operator.”

Reliability is the key, and according to Chanaga, the existing numbers regarding the effectiveness of both programs speak highly in their favor. “As long as the member they’re calling at the other end is another number on the network, they can combine the GETS card with that direct-dial attempt, and usually — the statistics that DHS publishes is that you can get a call to complete on the first dial 95 percent of the time. Which, as you can imagine, is pretty good.”

Some of the examples Chanaga cites are formidable. “During September 11, they had about 50,000 calls that went in and out of Manhattan with priority access, because there were government users, there were other people that now suddenly were enabled for this — they could get through,” he recalls. “Right after September 11, most of the FBI members — support staff or special agents — did not have the GETS calling card, so the government actually went through with their enrollment effort. … It was right after September 11, where they did a massive enrollment of users, and that really helped them to be prepared for this kind of stuff.”

And this is why Chanaga is so adamant about encouraging InfraGard members to enroll in both of these services — at pivotal times like this, it’s vital for them to be able to communicate and execute the tasks that so many InfraGard members will need to perform. “Currently, nationwide, there are about 327,000 people in and out of government that have the GETS calling cards, and out of the WPS or Wireless Priority Service, there are about 125,000 users, which, combined is what — less than half a million people, really? Which is not a lot considering the size of the federal government. … Because of InfraGard’s mission to support the FBI and work with the FBI and Homeland — as a result of that, that’s why the FBI sponsored InfraGard, so that we can offer both of these two benefits to our members.”endicon