Fort Drum NEC answers distress call from Fort Hamilton
December 20, 2012
After Hurricane Sandy swept through New York City last month, a distress call went out from the Network Enterprise Center at Fort Hamilton to address the installation's degraded capabilities.
Within hours, Fort Drum's NEC answered that call.
"We got our team, assembled our gear and loaded the trucks that night," said David J. Davidson, chief of the Network and Switch Division at Fort Drum NEC and team leader during the mission.
By 4 a.m. the next day, Davidson and four other Fort Drum NEC technicians -- Joe Tremblay, Transmission Branch chief; Dave Kalynycz, Land Mobile Radio (LMR) administrator; and Keith Baker and Jack Hatcher, telecommunications mechanics -- were bound for the historic Army post located just miles from Long Island's worst-hit neighborhoods.
"We basically went in there blind," said Davidson, an Air Force veteran of Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia and Kosovo. "We didn't know what the conditions on the ground would be."
The team he assembled contained specialists fluent in multiple disciplines, including cable infrastructure, copper fiber repair, central office systems, LMR capabilities and digital switching.
"I brought a self-contained skill set," he said. "You could take a pod with those people I brought with me and drop us in anywhere. Within a day or two, we would have executed our discipline."
Davidson, who served as a sort of "battle captain" of the small unit, said they felt their way around after arriving at Fort Hamilton, trying to fully understand the infrastructure and circuitry before initiating repairs and making themselves available.
Personnel employed at Fort Hamilton, including NEC staff, had lost their cars, homes and other possessions in the flooding and damaging winds. Davidson said his team's mission was to alleviate the stress and responsibilities of those workers by assuming the lead in getting Fort Hamilton's core services back up.
"We said: 'You go and worry about your home situation; we will get the work done,'" he said.
Davidson's team also had to consider an influx of additional personnel and vehicles after Fort Hamilton, which sustained little damage in the storm, was designated a base of operation for disaster response organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We had to fix Hamilton," Davidson said. "And at the same time, DoD chose to use Hamilton as a launching site for other relief efforts.
"Our priority was to get all circuits up and operational; restore data, phones, SIPR (secret Internet protocol router) services; take what existing services were working; and farm it out to incoming (agencies)," he added.
The team provided immediate LMR support, delivering critical walkie-talkie service to MPs, first responders, health and safety officials, and other emergency-related groups.
Davidson said the team worked long days, typically between 16 and 18 hours. For the first three nights, they slept five to a room on concrete floors before some cots were flown in from Fort Drum with additional supplies. He said five to a room was a luxury for his team, considering the accommodations others received later on.
Tremblay, also a veteran of the Air Force where he worked in telecommunications, said the whole experience reminded him a lot of his past military service.
A self-described "multipurpose tool," he said he was honored to lend his skills to the mission.
"It felt good to be able to go down and help the folks there," Tremblay said. "And it wasn't that they couldn't do the job. It's just that they had their own homes and families they needed to take care of."
The team departed Fort Drum in three vehicles that included a bucket truck, pumping units and piles of high-end electronics and electrical equipment. Davidson said they expected to do everything from splicing cables to pumping water from manholes to cutting and moving trees.
With no fuel in the city and travel restrictions in place, the team made sure to fuel up before entering the metropolitan area and stacked containers filled with gas in the back of each truck.
After some infrastructure repairs that included clearing downed lines, Davidson said much of the team's time at Fort Hamilton was spent researching and mapping the circuits to determine which central office, or telephone switching station, they went to.
"One of the big ones was at 104 Broad Street," he said. "It was a constant battle -- probably 80 percent of Hamilton's services went through (that central office)."
Davidson said people often didn't understand why they had no cell phone service. But cell phone connections, he noted, must go through a central office and tie to the network just like landlines do.
He said LMR radios became such a key due to the terrible cell phone reception.
Within a week, things had stabilized enough that Davidson's team could return home.
"When we left, I felt really good," he said. "All the power and lights were on. Long-haul interactive services were about 80-percent operational. For the services that were not up, we had developed and implemented strategies to cut off existing services to feed those other requirements if they needed them.
"We certainly left option sets for the commander on the ground."
Davidson expressed pride in the team he selected for the important mission.
"It's unbelievable," he said. "I was very proud of the fact that all of these guys were willing to rise to the challenge, go into an unknown condition, no questions asked, ready to serve. But the best part was I knew -- because I know my guys and I know my team -- that when I picked those names, no matter what we're up against down there, we would be successful.
"I don't know that every installation could go into their human resource pool and pull out that kind of talent."