SMYRNA, Del. (Sept. 29, 2014) -- Damaged and overloaded cell towers and a lack of equipment interoperability between first responders caused life-threatening communications gaps during disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11.

Now, the Army National Guard will be able to overcome those gaps using an advanced communications package that keeps commercial internet and phone services operating, and provides communications interoperability between first responders.

"When all the communication infrastructure is wiped out, the sooner you can establish some level of reliable communications and talk across state agencies, the sooner you can build that effective response in the early stage of an emergency, and that is invaluable," said Col. Dallas Wingate, director of military support for the Delaware Army National Guard. "That is what these new capabilities will provide."

This new rapidly deployable Disaster Incident Response Emergency Communications Terminal (DIRECT) consists of a Joint Network Node (JNN) with a Satellite Transportable Terminal (STT) provided by each state's National Guard units, and a new advanced capability Delta Package. It utilizes the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (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. Formally known as the Joint Incident Site Communication Capability (JISCC), DIRECT was recently renamed by the National Guard to avoid confusion with previous capability. It is a major upgrade and replaces the legacy JISCC capability and will be fielded under the Army Product Manager (PdM) 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 third quarter fiscal year (FY) 2015, with fielding expected through FY 2020.

"DIRECT is plug and play, and 'boom,' we are there to give them that support," said Lt. Col. Wiley Blevins, commander of the Delaware National Guard's 198th Signal Battalion, which provides communications support to military and non-military units and agencies for both civil and federal missions. "It's going to allow us to step in there and provide that communication link and save lives, save property and do what every Guardsman wants to do. That is why we joined the Guard, to be that force for our friends and neighbors."

Not only does DIRECT enable commercial internet and phone accessibility, it provides radio bridging and voice cross-banding, which enables first responders, Guardsmen, and other organizations to seamlessly communicate with each other using their own radios rather than relying on the Guard to provide radios for everyone. It also provides 4G LTE/wireless capability for the incident site command post and outlying vicinity.

The Army validated these new capabilities in early September during a Joint demonstration at the Smyrna Readiness Center in Smyrna, Delaware. The validation event was a precursor to the Winter Institute Intergovernmental Interoperability Excursion, or WII2E, that will be held at College Station, Texas at the end of October. The WII2E is a collective initiative between government, academic, and industry partners to integrate, exercise, and assess command and control and communications technologies between Department of Defense and the first responder community.

"Interoperability is key, and this new capability is light years ahead of where we were during Hurricane Katrina," Blevins said during the validation event. "These new capabilities will enable us to give out more resources to more people, and enable them to use the communications equipment they already have and are comfortable with, which is important in crisis mode."

To support DIRECT, the Army recently installed a Commercial Internet and Phone, or COM-IP, package at its Regional Hub Node, known as an RHN, in Camp Roberts, California. The service completed the effort in June in time to support the 2014 U.S. hurricane season, which runs from June through December. Now if a domestic emergency were to occur, the Army could provide the needed services to first responders in support of relief efforts.

The Camp Roberts RHN is one of five fixed nodes strategically placed around the world. Their baseband and satellite communications capabilities enable regionalized reach-back to the Army's global WIN-T network. The other four RHNs are scheduled to be updated with the COM-IP package within the next year, enabling similar capability should a disaster strike anywhere on the planet.

Enabling first responders to leverage the National Guard's organic WIN-T equipment without compromising the secure military network is the cornerstone of the new capability. The RHN's new commercial transport capabilities enable responders to call any commercial cell phone or landline or obtain commercial Internet access, said Joseph Vano, RHN project lead for PdM WIN-T Increment 1.

"This capability ensures those important relief, rescue and coordination calls get through and enables first responders to get their job done more effectively and efficiently," Vano said.

During the capabilities demonstration, Blevins made a wireless 4G LTE cell phone call through the military network to Maj. Gen. Francis D. Vavala, the adjutant general of the Delaware National Guard. The call ran through the DIRECT Delta Package capabilities and WIN-T Increment 1 equipment at the Smyrna Readiness Center, to the RHN's COM-IP in California, and down to the adjutant general's desk phone at the Delaware Joint Forces Headquarters in New Castle, Delaware, without the use of local commercial cell towers. They also made a cell-to-cell call to a National Guard chief warrant officer in Germany, using the same capabilities.

DIRECT's Wi-Fi coverage removes some of the cables that tend to clutter command posts and allows Soldiers to roam from their stations so they can be more effective. In addition, the 4G LTE infrastructure, which covers the outlying vicinity of the incident site command post operations, allows Soldiers to use their secure network via smartphones, and in the near future they will be able to use laptops and tablets with the capability as well.

DIRECT's transport mechanisms include a WIN-T Increment 1 Joint Network Node and Satellite Transportable Terminal, which have already been fielded to National Guard units for over a decade, saving the cost of fielding additional equipment. The JISCC also includes a towed generator, towed equipment trailer with communications equipment, tent and support supplies.

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. Since the National Guard has a dual role supporting both state and federal missions, MNE can also be rapidly reconfigured to provide tactical access for Secure Internet Protocol Router, Non-secure Internet Protocol Router, or even coalition networks.

Integrated into the MNE, the radio-bridging and voice cross-banding module allows interconnection between telephones, combat net radios, first responders' radios and voice applications. 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.

Prior to these efforts, joint services couldn't provide these capabilities to non-military agencies and first responders because these agencies lacked access to the secure military WIN-T network. Now, disaster responders such as police, firemen and the Red Cross simply bring one of their organization's radios to the National Guard DIRECT command post, plug it into the DIRECT's radio-bridging/voice cross banding module, and everyone can talk to each other across radios, cell and land-line phones, regardless of what frequencies they are using, said Capt. Adrian Smith, DIRECT project lead for Product Manager WIN-T Increment 1, which fields and manages these new capabilities.

"It's a game changer in communications during disaster incidents, when communications can mean the difference between life and death," Smith said.