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Mock disaster: New commo for National Guard first responders

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Following a direct hit from a mock category 2 hurricane, the Army demonstrated new solutions that for the first time enable the National Guard to communicate with civilian emergency managers over the military network.

When the Army National Guard rolls in with its new Disaster Incident Response Emergency Communications Terminal, or DIRECT, system, they can immediately provide 4G/Wi-Fi, commercial phone and internet access, and the ability to connect all the disparate radios that various responders bring to the incident site.

"By tying into the Army’s network, our infrastructure establishes an overall incident communications backbone that can be leveraged by local first responders," said Lt. Col. Joel Babbitt, product manager for Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, known as WIN-T, Increment 1, which manages the DIRECT program.

Adding, "So, it has immediate impact at a disaster site by enabling the National Guard and all of our first responders to coordinate the multitude of needs and efforts on the ground."

The DIRECT system consists of a Joint Network Node with a Satellite Transportable Terminal already fielded to National Guard units in each state, as well as a new advanced capability Delta Package.

It utilizes the Army’s WIN-T Increment 1 tactical network to provide collaboration and communication services at incident sites that link local responders and emergency managers with state and federal authorities.

DIRECT’s communications capabilities were demonstrated at the Winter Institute Intergovernmental Interoperability Excursion, referred to as WII2E, held at the end of October at Texas A&M Engineering Extension Services’ Disaster City, a realistic training and testing facility for first responders.

The WII2E is a collective effort by government, academia and industry partners to integrate, exercise and assess command and control and communications technologies for the National Guard and first responder communities.

Event scenarios included a major train derailment, chemical spill, survivor search and rescues, and property damage assessments.

The DIRECT equipment package was operated by the Texas Army National Guard’s 625th Signal Network Support Company, out of Round Rock, Texas.

"Our unit is the backbone, not to be seen, but to enable everyone to hear each other," said Spc. Larissa Perkins of the 625th.

Adding, "It brings in agencies like the fire department so our own search-and-rescue team can speak to any civilian entity that it needs to. DIRECT brings us better, more efficient communications with the civilian entities that we support."

Formerly known as the Joint Incident Site Communication Capability, or JISCC, DIRECT was recently renamed by the National Guard Bureau to avoid confusion with previous capabilities.

Although the legacy JISCC aided first responder communications, it did not enable the military and first responders to directly communicate over the military WIN-T network. DIRECT is a major upgrade replacing the legacy JISCC capability and will be fielded under the Army’s WIN-T Increment 1 program to all 54 states and territories with a National Guard presence.

On the current timeline, the Army expects to begin fielding to the first unit in the third quarter of Fiscal Year 2015, with fielding expected through FY 2020.

At the heart of the new DIRECT package is the Mission Network Enclave, or MNE, which fits into a single man-portable transit case and provides the tactical access to commercial internet and telephone services.

Integrated into the MNE, the radio-bridging and voice cross-banding module allows interconnection between cell, land line and Voice Over Internet Protocol calls, combat net radios and first responders’ radios.

It enables seamless interoperability among disparate radio networks without supplying common radios to all the users, as was done in the past.

Guardsmen can now combine radio and phone networks for crossed communications or create different forums where various agencies can talk in independent groups.

"The biggest issue we had in the past was that everyone wasn’t able to sync together," said Sgt. Michael Roughton, who operates the Joint Network Node for the 625th.

Adding, "This capability is allowing everyone to collaborate better and provide us a bigger operational picture. The whole [National] Guard and the whole state will be able to work more closely together to accomplish our mission."

To support DIRECT, the Army recently installed a commercial internet and phone package at its Regional Hub Node, referred to as an RHN, in Camp Roberts, Calif., and the other four RHNs worldwide are also receiving the upgrade to provide the capabilities to support global disaster response.

The RHN’s new commercial transport capabilities enable responders to call any commercial cell phone or land line, or obtain internet access, even when commercial towers are down.

"In a disaster, when cell towers are damaged and everyone is trying to make calls at same time to check on their families, your cell phone goes straight to voice mail," said Capt. Adrian Smith, DIRECT project lead for PdM WIN-T Increment 1, who is also a member of the Florida Army National Guard.

"When all of that cell capability is down, the National Guard can show up with the DIRECT system and provide that support capability and enable those priority calls to get through," he added.

DIRECT provides 4G LTE/Wi-Fi connectivity for the incident site command post and vicinity.

The capability additionally enables live video-teleconferencing in support of response efforts, so first responders can get conference links on their tablets or cell phones and attend update meetings without having to stop their relief efforts.

The Wi-Fi frees responders from network cables and enables quicker setup time since extensive cables no longer have to be transported, laid out, bundled and plugged into servers.

Key to the new capability is enabling first responders to leverage the National Guard’s organic WIN-T Increment 1 equipment without compromising the secure military network.

During WII2E, DIRECT system enabled the Guard to securely merge the military network with the civilian network for the first time to achieve a common operational picture of the mock hurricane disaster site.

First responders on the ground used a civilian version of the Army’s Tactical Ground Reporting, or TiGR, system called "GeoSuite," a web-based, multimedia common operating system that allows users to collect, report and share information with a handheld tablet.

Search-and-rescue teams reported on the incident and requested help, such as medical, vehicle, engineer or aircraft support.

As teams moved through Disaster City, icons populated in both TiGR and GeoSuite to depict the disaster response.

That common operating picture was shared over the WIN-T network to everyone at the incident site, as well as to the 86th Expeditionary Signal Battalion at Fort Bliss, Texas, which played the Army’s backup unit for the mock event.

They could even view live feeds from special test cameras mounted on an aerostat above the site, and on search-and-rescue dogs.

"I need that common operating picture to make decisions to allocate and prioritize a limited number of resources," said Warren "Country" Weidler, search-and-rescue coordinator for the state of Texas, who played the incident commander during the mock hurricane.

Adding, "The National Guard now becomes a force multiplier; they have people organized, trained and ready to go and now we have some common communications and a common operating picture so we can make operations faster and more efficient."