How do you make a 911 call in the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ)? For residents of Pocahontas County, one of the largest and most rural areas located in the NRQZ, new radio communications coverage has been introduced for first responders.
“Safety is our top priority, and our team has worked hard to find a solution,” shares Jim Jackson, Director of National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Green Bank Observatory (GBO).
The team includes scientists and engineers from GBO, NSF’s National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and Pocahontas County, in consideration of emergency service providers and the West Virginia Statewide Interoperable Radio Network.
“We are in a rural, mountainous and remote location with a small population. This makes it challenging to set up uninterrupted communications services,” says Jackson. “These same characteristics are one of the reasons the Observatory was built here.”
The NRQZ was established by the federal government in 1958 to limit radio frequency interference with scientific and federal research conducted within a 13,000 square mile area, which includes the Green Bank Observatory and the federal government’s Sugar Grove facility. The NRQZ also overlaps a much smaller and more specific area, the West Virginia Radio Astronomy Zone (WVRAZ), which surrounds a 10-mile radius of the Observatory. At the time these restrictions were created, the technology of mobile devices, wifi, and other transmitters that we use daily didn’t exist. This technology operates at many of the same wavelengths as the planets, stars, and black holes the Green Bank Telescope is observing.
An updated agreement has been established between the NRQZ and Pocahontas County Commission identifying a radio band at which emergency services can operate with lower power, increasing public safety, while minimizing the impact of interference with the Observatory, expanding coverage in Bartow and the Snowshoe Ski Resort. Coverage already exists in other parts of the county further away from the Observatory.
The impact of the NRQZ in West Virginia Statewide Interoperable Radio Network locations in surrounding counties has been under discussion with the NRQZ Office, who are working towards solutions which have not yet been deployed. The question of who will pay for additional changes to infrastructure required to expand these services remains open. “The final barrier to fully executing these improvements is adequate funding. From county engineers to the Observatory staff, we are all at the mercy of budgets,” adds Jackson. “There are many entities involved in the NRQZ. The Observatory isn’t the controlling factor here, but we are committed to putting in the resources we have to improve what we can. This is our community, too, and we want everyone to be safe.”