ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (May 15, 2013) -- When the National Guard and first responders first hit the scene in the devastating wake of Hurricane Sandy, they relied on the Army network's Regional Hub Nodes (RHNs) to help them communicate in a new way.

"Without this quick action by the RHN team, the Sandy relief effort would have been much more difficult; they helped save lives by giving first responders the communications they needed to be effective," said Lt. Col. Joel Babbitt, Product Manager for Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (PdM WIN-T) Increment 1, the first increment of Army's tactical communications network backbone. "Through the hard work of many different organizations, the RHN provided a way for the National Guard and first responders to communicate and coordinate their efforts, and we're working now to make that capability permanent."

After "Super Storm" Sandy hit the east coast of the United States in October 2012, the area suffered massive power outages. Many of the cell phone and mobile communications connections that the first responders needed to begin recovery efforts didn't work because the cell phone towers themselves were without power. This introduced a huge gap in communications that needed to be filled.

"During Hurricane Sandy, there were no communication services to plug into," said Joseph Vano, RHN project lead for PdM WIN-T Increment 1. "The Internet providers were down. The power was out. There was no telephone service. We are talking about complete devastation."

By utilizing the Army National Guard's WIN-T Increment 1 equipment through the satellite transport capabilities of the Continental U.S. (CONUS) East RHN in a new way, the National Guard and first responders were able to communicate and work around this hurdle. There are five RHNs strategically positioned worldwide, which help extend the military WIN-T network to U.S tactical forces, but this was the first time any of them were used for large natural disaster relief support.

"The National Guard's role in the relief effort was extraordinary, and by having WIN-T equipment inherent in their unit, they also had access to secure and non-secure military networks and Voice Over Internet Protocol as soon as they connected to the RHN," said Greg Hulette, an RHN systems engineer for PdM WIN-T Increment 1. "The difficulty came when the National Guard was tasked to provide communications for the first responders."

Just like the rest of the Army, the National Guard operates over the WIN-T network, which is similar to a home Internet connection and provides voice, video and data services to U.S. forces worldwide. However, non-military workers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and various disaster relief organizations needed to be able to link directly with the National Guard and vice versa outside of the military infrastructure, so pure commercial Internet and telephone access was required.

Just prior to the direct hit of the storm, the WIN-T Increment 1 RHN engineering team came up with an ad hoc solution to provide commercial Internet and phones through the National Guard's WIN-T Increment 1 equipment -- while maintaining separation of the Army's military traffic to ensure that no information assurance boundaries were crossed. This allowed the first responders to have communications so that they could coordinate with each other, the National Guard and outside organizations.

As part of the solution, some of the resources that were only available at the CONUS West RHN were piped into the CONUS East RHN, as well resources that would enable the CONUS East RHN to facilitate commercial Internet and phone distribution. Then the team had to properly configure the equipment of National Guard units deploying to the affected areas and then work the integration between the WIN-T equipment and the new RHN capability. The National Guard and the WIN-T Increment 1 team moved quickly to implement the solution and set up mobile command posts to restore the local, state and federal government's communications capabilities.

WIN-T Increment 1, formerly known as the "Joint Network Node (JNN) Network," began fielding in 2004 to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It provides Soldiers with high-speed, high-capacity voice, data and video communications down to battalion level units, at-the-quick-halt. The five RHNs strategically placed worldwide are the upper-most level of the WIN-T architecture, and their innovative baseband and satellite communications capabilities enable regionalized reach-back to the Army's global network.

In lesser quantity, National Guard units in every state are fielded with the same WIN-T equipment that regular Army units have in theater, so they can effectively integrate into the RHNs and the WIN- T network.

Although the Hurricane Sandy communication solution that was integrated in the CONUS East RHN is only a temporary fix, it mirrors the capabilities which will be provided by the Army's network capability set scheduled to be deployed in fiscal year 2014. All five RHNs will eventually be upgraded to include these capabilities, so National Guard units stationed both domestically and in U.S. territories around the globe will have them at their disposal to support future crisis situations.

The Army also has plans to place Contingency Communications Equipment at all battalion and above nodes supporting the Defense Civil Support mission. This includes mission enclaves specifically for providing the commercial Internet and phones that state and local governments, first responders, and non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross need to support their relief efforts, said John Shotwell, systems engineer for PdM WIN-T Increment 1.

"Should there be a natural disaster or other crisis that needs to be responded to by U.S. Forces anywhere in the world, those RHNs will most certainly become a focal point of that network," Vano said. "And we'll have these advanced capabilities already in place to support those efforts and potentially save lives."