Reducing Satellite Data Costs in Wildfire Response

Tim Karney on April 18, 2017, 8:59 am

Over the next four weeks the fire consumed over 11,000 acres of woodland. On some days, over 300 responders were engaged in attempts to contain the fire. These included forestry, helicopters, law enforcement, structure protection firefighters, and other emergency management and public safety responders.

Pierce Womack, the Deputy Director of Pickens County Emergency Management described the situation, “We were in a very rural area, in Table Rock State Park area which is a big attraction to hikers. We also had to evacuate the park as well as homes in the area. We had to close the hiking trails in the area due to the fire and smoke conditions.

We had two satellite systems to provide internet access on site. But with 60 to 80 people on the command staff utilizing these systems we were barely getting by. MIFIs wouldn’t work at all. We had very slow connectivity for voice and data.

If you get three or four people logged in through the satellite system is slows down and basically locks up. The MiFIs are fine if you are in a city but in these rural areas they won’t connect at all.

Verizon came in and installed one of their COWs, their portable towers which helped our voice coverage but it didn’t do anything for us for data.

We used satellite for nearly two and a half weeks. During that period, the bill for the data provided by the satellite company was initially about $25,000.

By that point, the fire had spread into the adjacent Greenville County. They had set up a smaller command post. 

The South Carolina State Emergency Management Agency dropped in two Plum Cases® for us to use. We had one Plum Case® for our command post and they had one Plum Case® for the Greenville County CP.

From the time we switched on the Plum Case®, we shut down the satellite link and never had to turn it on again. We connected the Plum Case® to an Ubiquiti wireless mesh network system. We ran a short jumper cable over to the mesh network dish and pointed the dish towards another dish that received the wireless signal which enable us to provide internet access to a wider area.

We connected the Plum Case® into a large Ethernet switch. That enabled us to provide access to ten different sources. We had people plugging in hard wired computers into the switch as well as the wireless networks used by some of the command staff.

The Plum Case® worked phenomenally well. On some days, we had between sixty to eighty people using the system with high speed data and voice. Our IT people were astonished at the speeds we were getting.

Previously, before receiving the Plum Case®, we tried MiFis, satellite and cellular boosters and none of them really worked for us. The Plum Case® was the talk of the camp after it arrived.

Everything on the top half of Pickens County is very rural. There are a lot of rock climbing and hiking areas which pull large number of tourists. During the summertime, the area is heavily used by hikers and campers.

We’re up there frequently rescuing people who have been injured or lost in these rural areas. We could use the Plum Case® daily in these type of search and rescue operations.

When we go up there we don’t have any connectivity except the Plum Case®. That’s important to us since we put GPS trackers on our rescuers who go out there. We need to be able to use the internet to track them and make sure they are alright.

Recently a hiker got lost out there and called 911. He only had two percent left of his battery power. His phone died before we could get all the information. We had to put up a helicopter with a FLIR system. They could give us a live downlink of the FLIR system so we could see the images as the pilot did.

We could use the Plum Case® to give us internet access to our tablets and laptops while we were sitting on the side of the mountain, getting the images while watching the helicopter work the search area.

Since that incident, we had Plum Laboratories install a Plum Case® in one of our Suburban command vehicles with a big antenna array. From the laptops in the van, we can VPN in to our county 911 system. Someone in the car can put on a headset and answer calls and dispatch through the radio system. They can talk through the radios on that system. 

We have a lot of technology and it all is driven through the internet. Our Incident Command System is web-based so if we don’t have internet access is severely hampers our operations.

We use the Plum Case® during incidents to issue press releases from the field. We also use it to keep in email contact with our state leaders to keep them informed of our operations.

One of the things we love about the Plum Case® is that it’s so quick and easy to deploy. Attach the lead to the battery, flick the switch, and in about five minutes you are connected. “

For more information on Plum Laboratories and its entire line of continuity of operations and remote access solutions, visit

Organizations interested in testing a Plum Case® should contact John Deering, Director of Technical Services at or call him at (615) 484-7255.

Latest Stories