LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- If disaster strikes the U.S. homeland, a new network communications tool suite will enable Army National Guard Soldiers to provide first responders with network and phone communications, even when local infrastructure has been destroyed.
"In a disaster situation, interoperable communications between the military, first responders and other [non-government] agencies is always critical," said Maj. Gen. Timothy McKeithen, deputy director for the National Guard. "Lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina [taught us that] it's all about timing -- a few minutes, compared to an hour or days, in communicating is huge when it comes to your property, life and family members."
The Army is preparing to field the new Disaster Incident Response Emergency Communications Terminal (DIRECT) tool suite to all U.S. states and territories with a National Guard presence, Fielding completion is currently projected for 2021.
"We are fielding this new equipment to help us interoperate and better communicate up and down [and across the various chains of command], and we are excited about it," McKeithen said. "That interoperability will allow us to move quicker, to act quicker and get things done."
DIRECT securely leverages National Guard organic Warfighter Information Network-Tactical network equipment to enable service members to provide emergency responders with commercial phone and internet access, along with commercial wireless and 4G LTE, during domestic natural disasters, emergencies and civil support operations.
The system also has a bridging capability that connects radios operating on different frequencies, and it enables interconnection between cell phones, internet telephones, and military and first responder radios in order enable seamless collaboration.
"If commercial cellular phone and internet services are down in a disaster situation, we need to be able to have an alternate means to communicate," said Maj. Gen. Garrett S. Yee, Headquarters Department of the Army, Acting Director of Cybersecurity Directorate, Office of the Chief Information Officer/G-6. "This bridging capability allows us to communicate from a radio to a cell phone, land line or another radio on a different frequency. Reliable communication in an emergency is critical for first responders."
With support from the Delaware Army National Guard 198th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, the Army demonstrated the DIRECT communications kit during the 2017 National Guard G6 Mission Command Workshop in Little Rock in mid-May. During the demonstration, the 198th Expeditionary Signal Battalion Soldiers successfully operated and briefed the DIRECT capabilities to senior Guard and active-duty Army leaders and workshop attendees.
Additionally, the unit integrated and provided communication services to the Arkansas State Police. Representatives from Project Manager WIN-T, assigned to the Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical, which manages the DIRECT capability for the Army, were also on site to brief and answer questions.
"The criticality of being able to communicate on day one can't be underestimated. Our mission requires interoperability among all the different agencies, especially in a homeland situation where we have diverse first responders coming in," Yee said. "We all need to have a single platform to enable interoperability and this system is a big part of that."
Not only does DIRECT provide interagency communications throughout an incident site, but the robust WIN-T network also enables reach-back capabilities so first responders can benefit from the knowledge and leadership of subject matter experts anywhere in the world. The Army is also working to ensure that DIRECT is compatible with FirstNET, a nationwide broadband network being created by the U.S. Department of Commerce to support first responders.
"In a domestic operation, whether it be a natural disaster or a CBRNE [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosives] event, DIRECT enables and enhances the communication capabilities between the first responders, the military, and local township, county, and state authorities," said Lt. Col. Joseph Yawn, deputy brigade commander for the Delaware Army National Guard 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade.
"It ties all the communications together, not just voice but the data transfer, emails, and teleconferencing," he said. "That is huge because during Hurricane Katrina they didn't have that capability. [Now,] if someone is on a hand held radio and they need to reach the top, and the only thing at the top is a cell phone, we can do that. It ties all the communication venues together. I see a definite need for it."
To support DIRECT, the Army installed commercial internet and phone packages at each of the five WIN-T Regional Hub Nodes to support these commercial capabilities globally. Regional Hub Nodes (RHNs) are the largest satellite transport nodes in the Army's tactical network, enabling the exchange of robust network communication in, out and within theater. Leveraging the nodes for commercial transport capabilities enables responders to call any commercial cell phone or landline or obtain internet access, even when commercial towers are down.
"I think it is absolutely imperative that our first responders can integrate into the network as quickly and seamlessly as possible," said Col. Karen Roe, commander of the 21st Signal Brigade, which supports RHN operations.
"If they are worried about the network, they are less focused on their jobs," she continued. The RHNs do the same thing for our first responders as they do for our military. If our customers know that on a quick timeline they can gain access to the network, they will be more focused on executing their mission. The RHN is that rapid tactical interface."
DIRECT will replace the Army National Guard's legacy Joint Incident Site Communication Capability (JISCC.) Although JISCC assisted 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 enables mission command and voice, video and data communications anywhere in the world without need of static infrastructure.
Additionally, unlike JISCC, DIRECT falls under a funded Army program of record, so training and sustainment are built into the program. This stability will enable the Guard to more cost effectively operate, manage and maintain the equipment.
During the Army National Guard Mission Command Workshop demonstration in Little Rock, WIN-T program office engineers answered questions from Soldiers of the various states and territories that will receive this equipment. "We have never conducted a demonstration of this magnitude," said Army Maj. Adrian Smith, DIRECT project lead for Project Manager WIN-T Increment 1, who is also a member of the Florida Army National Guard.
"Demonstrating DIRECT during the Mission Command Workshop paid big dividends for the WIN-T program office and the DIRECT Program," he said. "It definitely cleared up any misperceptions, while at the same time created excitement over the system's capabilities to seamlessly support first responders."
In August 2016, the Army conducted a pilot also supported by the Delaware Army National Guard 198th Expeditionary Signal Battalion at Georgetown, Delaware, and a system logistics demonstration with the same unit in February 2017 at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. The Army conducted an additional pilot in November 2016 in Towson and Reisterstown, Maryland, supported by Maryland National Guard Soldiers from Headquarters and Headquarters Company 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment and the 629th Network Support Company.
The primary purpose of these risk reduction efforts was to provide training on the DIRECT equipment and allow Soldiers to operate the equipment and provide feedback to the WIN-T program office for continual system improvements. Upcoming pre-fielding pilots will include National Guard units from Florida, California and Hawaii.
When fielding begins, where possible, the system will be fielded simultaneously with scheduled WIN-T Increment 1 technical refresh upgrades. This fielding schedule will take advantage of facilities and resources already in use, and it is expected to minimize unit disruption increase efficiencies in time and cost.
"Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 both taught us that without strong and seamless interagency communications, lives can be lost," said Lt. Col. Mark Henderson, product manager for WIN-T Increment 1, which manages DIRECT for the Army. "DIRECT enables all the various agencies at a humanitarian disaster or incident recovery site not only to communicate with each other but with those in the rear supporting and coordinating operations. The more information that can easily and securely be shared across the entire rescue effort, the faster and more effective the response to the American people."
The U.S. Army Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical develops, acquires, fields and supports the Army's mission command network to ensure force readiness. This critical Army modernization priority delivers tactical communications so commanders and Soldiers can stay connected and informed at all times, even in the most austere and hostile environments. PEO C3T is delivering the network to regions around the globe, enabling high-speed, high-capacity voice, data and video communications to a user base that includes the Army's joint, coalition and other mission partners.