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BMERS-Emergency Email System

BMERS portable station
NIHRAC is collaborating with the National Library of Medicine and many volunteers to help develop an emergency communications system for incident command settings.

The purpose of the "BHEPP MARS/Winlink Emergency Radio System" (BMERS--pronounced  "beamers") is to supply medical facilities with a backup Internet email system during times of crisis. Emergency managers in charge of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the facility can use BMERS when other communications resources such as cell phones, Internet access, and others, are affected by the emergency. This is particularly important when telecommunications become degraded or unavailable over a large area around the facility, potentially in a radius of tens or hundreds of miles. 

BMERS acts roughly as a very-long-distance wireless Wi-Fi connection to the Internet, but only for email. Although BMERS cannot provide web browsing capabilities, it enables transfering hundreds of brief emails per day during a disaster event. Since BMERS connects wirelessly to the Internet outside the disaster zone, the email recipients at the other end do not need any special equipment or software to communicate with BMERS users other than their regular email. Typically, BMERS stations can be powered by a car battery, grid power or other sources.

BMERS  was developed as a research collaboration between the NIH Radio Amateur Club (NIHRAC), the US National Library of Medicine (NLM), and the Bethesda Hospitals' Emergency Preparedness Partnership (BHEPP), a local healthcare coalition. The project also benefits from contributions from Army-MARSMARC members, and other hams.

I'm a ham. What is BMERS, again?

BMERS user interface
BMERS is a free software application for MS Windows that, when combined with the an amateur radio rig compatible with the Winlink 2000 system, enables any ham to provide emergency Internet email communications to a group of non-ham people when Internet service is reduced or not available at that location. It extends the capabilities of the Winlink system to non-hams during an emergency. A single BMERS station can provide service to multiple end-users simultaneously.

In contrast to more traditional ham radio email services, BMERS allows end-users to handle their own email. With BMERS, the radio operator becomes an almost-transparent component of the email service enabled by this application. This has many advantages, for example: the radio operator can focus his efforts on making sure the radio links are established and not on handling messages. The end-users have access to a familiar email communications interface that requires almost no training to use. Since local users can access BMERS via Wi-Fi at a distance, BMERS allow local users to communicate among themselves or with the radio operator via instant messaging or local email. The radio operator has access to an easy-to-use management interface to control most functions.

End-user requirements

Local users do not need to have a ham radio license or interact with the radio equipment at all. To access the BMERS email service, local users can use any Wi-Fi or Ethernet capable device (such as a PC, laptop, tablet or smart phone) that can run a standard web browser. No additional software is required. The radio station operator supplies local users with email credentials and Wi-Fi configuration data required to access the service. 

Email users at the other end--on the Internet side--do not need any special software to communicate with BMERS users. They only need to keep in the body of their replies a special addressing data included in the emails they received from BMERS users.

Availability

The BMERS software is openly available for download and use free of charge. See the latest download instructions and release notes in the Documents and Software page on this website. Notice that at the time of this writing BMERS is available in BETA version, for instance we ask users to help us test the software for problems. The software is distributed as an installable Windows application. BMERS supports any radio rigs that are compatible with Winlink Express or Paclink (see www.winlink.org). The NLM website for examples of rigs we have used during development, but many others, including rigs with software modems, should work just fine.

If you want to learn more about BMERS, keep reading.


Project Goals

BMERS was born of a R&D project for a local healthcare coalition (BHEPP). The expected outcomes of this project are the following:

  • A technical solution that provides medical facilities (and others) with access to long-haul email communications with minimum dependency on infrastructural services, such as local telecommunications, power, etc.
  • A communication system that is fast to deploy-activate, simple to use, and as simple as possible to manage and maintain during an emergency situation and emergency communications exercises.
  • A system that provides electronic mail communications between Incident Command Centers (or EOCs) in support of their Hospital Incident Command System or equivalent.
  • Emergency communications support provided to the hospitals by experienced and dedicated volunteers from the ham community.
  • Radio station rig designs that can be reproduced by others, and software that can be freely used by anyone interested.

More details about this project and the BMERS application can be found on these articles:

Cid V, Mitz AR, Arnesen SJ. Keeping communications flowing during large scale disasters: leveraging amateur radio innovations for disaster medicine. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, 2017 Sept 25. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/dmp.2017.62

Cid V, Mitz A. "Optimizing Amateur Radio Resources for Major Disasters". ARRL QST Magazine, September 2011 issue, pages 30-34.
You can temporarily access a copy of this article in our Resources page. At this location you can also find a presentation about the project, and a BMERS poster that depicts the main components of our portable station.

System Architecture

At a minimum, BMERS requires a laptop connected to both, any radio rig compatible with Winlink and either a Wi-Fi access point or a LAN. The served local users access their BMERS email accounts by connecting to the BMER server via Wi-Fi or the LAN and a standard web browser. This architecture can be expanded by extending the local connectivity options.

BMERS has been tested in two operating modalities, as a portable version that can be easily deployed, and as a "Base Station" that is permanently available at a facility. 

As a portable version, BMERS implements its own LAN (wired and wireless) around the radio station and, via a Wi-Fi bridge, can extend the LAN access to the system to users located up to a mile away. This portable version can use a variety of power sources and antenna systems, and operate on HF and VHF amateur and MARS frequency bands.

BMERS portable station diagram


BMERS can also be connected to a pre-existing LAN, which makes this service available to users through that local network. The following diagram illustrates the main components of our "Base Station" implementation successfully tested in the NIH Bethesda campus:

BMERS Architecture

In this example, a single BMERS station is shared by three EOCs in three different medical facilities In this case, BMERS has the following high-level components:

  • A high-speed, private Local Area Network between the facilities being served. This LAN can interconnect the hospitals' Incident Command Centers (ICC or EOC), and it is normally not connected to the Internet.
  • A computer server connected to LAN, running the BMERS software.
  • The server is connected to our base radio station, which is equipped with an HF radio transceiver, a radio modem, and one or more HF antennas.
  • The system makes use of the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation, Inc's (ARSFI) Winlink 2000 system to bridge the email communications between the facilities and the Internet.

BMERS Highlights

  • A single radio station with one trained operator can serve many end-users simultaneously over a potentially large local area.
  • End users do not require an FCC radio amateur license or any radio operating experience.
  • BMERS users can use any available computer (or tablet or smartphone) with a standard web browser to access the email service. No special software is required on users' computers, just a web browser and Wi-Fi.
  • BMERS can be configured with predefined user accounts, typically based on HICS roles.
  • Local users can exchange full-featured emails with attachments among them and communicate locally via text messaging (also provided by BMERS--see ahead) at full LAN speed.
  • BMERS implements a number of features aimed to manage the use of the radio link's limited bandwidth (see "Bandwidth Control" below).
  • Users' email accounts in BMERS are typically role-based and follow the staffing positions defined in the Incident Command System.
  • Local users can use a "chat" tool to exchange instant text messages with each other and with the radio operator.
  • Local users can see which other users on the local area are using BMERS at any given time. The available email address in the LAN are visible in an address book for quick access for email and text messaging communications.
  • The Radio operator has access to a Graphical User Interface (GUI) for managing all the aspects of the system. This tool allows the operator to monitor the email queues, quickly switch between call signs if necessary, manage user accounts, broadcast alerts to all users, and more.

BMERS Portable Station deployed

Bandwidth Control

Due to FCC regulations for ham radio, the bandwidth available via a HF (or even VHF) radio link for data communications is very limited. It's easy to completely choke a radio link with a single large email. The radio operator can potentially remove a large email from a queue on the local radio station side to unclog the system, but it can be difficult to remove a large email coming from the other side that can be clogging the available downstream bandwidth. While the radio link is busy receiving an email, no email can be sent. This situation is what we call "Winlink jam" (or "bandwidth catastrophe", depending on the severity).

BMERS can transfer emails of any size locally (i.e., to each other within the LAN) at full LAN speed, but to reduce the chances of a "Winlink jam" in the radio link to the Internet, we implemented a number of features in the software:
  • Users have an email message size limit (it's configurable, but 1500 characters by default). The email interface displays a character counter showing how many characters are left when typing a message.
  • Emails include instructions for replying, which include a request to keep replies small.
  • The body of the message is stripped of unnecessary characters before sending.
  • Headers and other control information is kept to a minimum.
  • Regular emails cannot include attachments.
BMERS operator callsign management

Under certain circumstances, trained operators can also use Winlink tools to remove the traffic jam at the remote end, but when this is not possible, the BMERS coperator can switch the operating callsign to work around the traffic jam.


When necessary, the operator has the power to enable specific accounts to send emails without size or attachment restrictions.


Software and Documentation

At the time of this writing, detailed installation and configuration documentation for the latest version (10.1.9+) is under development. You can find the latest available documentation, with links to the downloadable MS windows installer, in our Documents and Software page. Check that page for updates. BMERS has been mainly tested on Windows 10, but it has been reported to work in windows 7.

Installation is simple: download the installer, run it as Administrator (important), then follow the prompts on the screen. Please pay attention to the configuration instructions that are displayed during the installation.



IMPORTANT: BMERS is currently available as BETA software. Please help us make BMERS as useful as possible by reporting any issues to us. You can contact  vcid @ nih.gov for more details or to report problems.

At the time of this writing, detailed installation and configuration documentation for the latest version (10.1.9+) is under development. 

You can find the latest available documentation, with links to the downloadable MS windows installer, in our Documents and Software page. BMERS has been mainly tested on Windows 10, but it has been reported to run well in windows 7.

Installation is simple: download the installer, run it as Administrator (important), then follow the prompts on the screen. Please pay attention to the configuration instructions that are displayed during the installation. 

IMPORTANT: BMERS is currently available as BETA software. Please help us make BMERS as useful as possible by reporting any issues to us. You can contact  vcid @ nih.gov for more details or to report problems.




References

Cid V, Mitz AR, Arnesen SJ. Keeping communications flowing during large scale disasters: leveraging amateur radio innovations for disaster medicine. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, 2017 Sept 25. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/dmp.2017.62

Cid V., Mitz A. ‘Optimizing Amateur Radio Resources for Major Disasters”. QST, September 2011, pp. 30-34. Available from http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=bmlocmFjLm9yZ3x3d3d8Z3g6NzI1M2I0NWFlODY5NDg3OA.

NIHRAC. “BMERS-Emergency Email System”. On the Web at http://www.nihrac.org/home/bmers.

Conuel T. “Emergency Backup Communications: The Old Meets the New”. NLM In Focus, January 10, 2013. Available from http://infocus.nlm.nih.gov/2013/01/10/emergency_backup_communication/.

Cid V., Mitz, A. “Radio E-Mail Service for Back-up Hospital Communications. Poster, updated January 2015. Available from https://docs.google.com/a/nihrac.org/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=bmlocmFjLm9yZ3x3d3d8Z3g6NTc0YTYwNzQ3ZTYxODA0NQ.

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