GEORGETOWN, Delaware (September 26, 2016) -- During devastating national disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, the inability to communicate between first responders, military and other critical organizations became gravely apparent. Phone lines and cell towers were completely destroyed or overloaded, and first responder's disparate communications equipment was not fully interoperable, significantly delaying critical emergency response.
To avoid situations like this, the Army's new Disaster Incident Response Emergency Communications Terminal (DIRECT) tool suite enables the National Guard to provide agile interoperable communications services at incident sites. It links local first responses and emergency managers with state and federal authorities, even when local commercial services have been wiped out.
"I was one of the 55,000 Guardsmen who went to Louisiana after Katrina hit New Orleans, and I saw firsthand how the communications equipment that you assumed would work, did not," said Brig Gen James Begley, director National Guard Bureau (NGB) Joint Staff J2 /J6 and chief information officer. "Equipment like DIRECT is absolutely critical, because citizens are dependent on us; they are dependent on the first responders -- the police, the fire department, emergency medical technicians. The bottom line? It's all about saving lives."
The Army recently held a DIRECT training and risk reduction event in Georgetown, Delaware supported by the Delaware Army National Guard 198th Expeditionary Signal Battalion (ESB), 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade (TTSB). Local first responders also participated in the exercise and successfully linked and utilized their own radios and network communications systems using the DIRECT system.
Without compromising the security of the military network, DIRECT leverages the Army National Guard's (ARNG) organic Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) tactical network to provide commercial 4G/Wi-Fi, commercial phone and internet access, and the ability to connect all the different types of radios that various responders bring to an incident site. The system also enables interconnection between telephones, military radios, first responder radios and cell phones for seamless collaboration.
"If people are trapped under a pile of rubble in a disaster situation, the ability for first responders to communicate should not even come to mind, their thoughts should be on the rescue," said Lt. Col. Mark Henderson, product manager for WIN-T Increment 1, which manages the DIRECT program for the Army and the ARNG. "During emergency situations, the DIRECT system is easy to deploy and operate, and it enables first responders to focus on their jobs, not their communications, so they can seamlessly collaborate and be more effective."
As part of its participation in the event, Delaware's Sussex County Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which also houses the county's 911 operations center, brought its mobile command unit, which includes a communications vehicle that serves as an on-the-move dispatch for emergency services. In the face of disaster, DIRECT can provide communications redundancy for the EOC above the contingences it currently has in place, enabling this critical organization to leverage commercial 4G/Wi-Fi, internet and phone services to continue operations when its own communications links have been cut off.
"With today's technology we are all on computers and smartphones and if we can't use that technology because of a storm, because there are towers down or what have you, that becomes critical," said Joseph Thomas, director of the Sussex County EOC. "And with our facility set 15 miles from the Atlantic coast, the concept of having communications issues…of losing the network…is real."
Thomas said that knowing DIRECT will provide the EOC an additional contingency to fall back on is a "big" deal. In the past, creating a bridge between the EOC system and the ARNG systems during disaster response had been a big concern.
"With this [system], we have bridged that gap," Thomas said. "If we have a coastal storm or hurricane and we lose communications, by using DIRECT, now we will be able to continue to function."
DIRECT replaces the ARNG's legacy Joint Incident Site Communication Capability (JISCC). Although JISCC aided first responder communications, it did not enable the military and first responders to directly communicate over the Army's robust WIN-T satellite--based network, which operates without need of local network infrastructure. The Army will field DIRECT to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and four territories with a National Guard presence, with fielding expected to begin in fiscal year 2017.
"This equipment will reinforce our role as the national security structure for domestic operations," said Lt. Col. Mike Orlando, commander for the 198th ESB. "We are like the governor's 911, and if he calls us, we have to be able to respond."
DIRECT consists of a WIN-T Joint Network Node (JNN) with a Satellite Transportable Terminal (STT), which are already fielded to National Guard units in each state, as well as a new advanced capability Delta Package. At the heart of the new DIRECT package is the Commercial Coalition Equipment (CCE), which fits into a single easy to carry transit case and provides the tactical access to commercial internet and telephone services.
"By having a smaller equipment footprint to support Army National Guard missions of Domestic Operations and Direct Support to Civil Authorities, we are able to move faster during the critical first 72 hours of the incident or event," said Col. Gus Santiago, NG-J6 C4 division chief.
Integrated into the CCE, the radio-bridging and voice cross-banding module enables seamless interoperability among disparate radio networks without supplying common radios to all the users, as was done in the past. Guardsmen can combine radio and phone networks for crossed communications or create secure forums where various agencies can talk in independent groups.
"We can respond to an emergency and save lives on a much quicker bases if we can all get together at the hot zone as a concerted effort and go in with one voice," said Lt. Col. (P) James Benson, commander for the 261st TTSB. "With this system, no matter who shows up, we can all communicate together."
To support DIRECT and other global disaster and humanitarian response, the Army installed a Commercial Internet and Phone package at each of its five worldwide Regional Hub Nodes. This additional capability package is the link that enables responders to call any commercial cell phone or landline or obtain internet access even when commercial towers are down.
"To know that in any major event my first responders can now seamlessly communicate with each other, and with the Guardsman or other military assets they are deployed with, is tremendous," said Brig. Gen. Mike Berry, land component commander for the Delaware ARNG. In addition to his service with the ARNG, Berry also works full time as the Deputy Troop Commander for the Delaware State Police, providing him with a unique dual-sided vision for what is needed during disaster response. "We are always just waiting for the big one to hit; it could happen tomorrow. The DIRECT system gives us, or any organization, much more confidence in our ability to respond and serve citizens who might be in trouble."