FORT GORDON, GA. --In Puerto Rico, food and medical aid to victims are the number one priority but the ability to communicate plays an extremely important role as well.
As we have seen in Puerto Rico the electricity and telephone/data infrastructures were severely damaged rendering them unserviceable, making communication impossible, thus requiring the agencies on ground to give first responders a real-time, accurate assessment of the physical condition of the city. This 'accurate assessment' of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, or of any natural disaster, can only be achieved through the provision of real-time communications. And this is where satellite communications play a vital role. In areas where there is no power, infrastructure or public amenities, satellite communications can provide that all-important lifeline to the outside world.
The U.S. Army has delivered communication network capabilities for diverse humanitarian coalitions and relief efforts from natural disasters at all stages before, during and after. U.S. Army Soldiers left Hunter Army Airfield in order to be deployed to join in the support mission on the ground in Puerto Rico. The U.S. Army (including Active Duty, U.S. Army Reserve, and Army National Guard) remains involved in, or prepared to support State, Territory, or other Federal Agencies such as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and were part of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and now hurricane Maria's ongoing relief efforts.
The team supporting relief efforts in Puerto Rico from the 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 35th Theater Tactical Signal Brigade are supporting various locations in Puerto Rico such as the Rafael Hernández Airport, which is a joint civil-military airport located in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. The 63rd ESB has employed its Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) assets throughout the island of Puerto Rico supporting various entities to include FEMA, local Fire and Police Departments, air traffic control, and multiple military units. The Joint Network Node (JNN) from 63rd ESB acted as the only source of communication for the air traffic control tower. The number of flights that operated before the hurricanes was 40 flights a day, and after the hurricane they were only able to accommodate one flight that took over 20 hours to coordinate at a time, according to officials at the Rafael Hernández Airport. The communication support package delivered to the Aguadilla Int'l airport has turned that one flight into 400 flights per day, a staggering 1000% increase in capability for the Aguadilla Int'l Airport. As U.S. Northern Command, in collaboration with the DoD and FEMA adjusted its focus in Puerto Rico from a short term, sea-based response to a predominantly land-based effort designed to provide robust, longer term support, this enhanced communications packaged delivered by the 63rd ESB provided a clearer picture of the extent of damage allowing the federal response to better focus its efforts.
Typically, when the National Response Framework is activated, FEMA will request that the Department of Defense provide a certain capability -- airlift capabilities, logistical support, and communication support, for example. Generally, that capability is made available within the first 24 to 72 hours of a declared emergency -- the most critical hours, according to FEMA.
The traditional role of the active-duty military force at home is one of support to a civilian Lead Federal Agency (LFA) that primarily falls under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). During emergencies, military domestic assistance is historically provided when local, state, and federal resources have been overwhelmed. When local, state and federal agencies have exhausted their resources, the armed forces have historically played an important supporting role in providing domestic assistance during emergencies. Defining the roles and understanding the responsibilities outlined for the Department of Defense within the National Response Plan is an important first step toward an effectively coordinated Federal domestic incident response.
Common sources of support included local police and fire departments, other first responders, friends and family members, relief organizations such as the Red Cross, and charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army.
This communication support directly enhances the relief efforts by humanitarian aid organizations of getting supplies and materials in by air which is the top priority of the DoD. As the DoD is working together to support FEMA and local authorities in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that are providing life-saving and life-sustaining support to those in the affected areas.
U.S. Army Forces Command's (FORSCOM) number one focus is readiness with a mindset of being "Ready Now" and that translates for the Soldiers of the 35th TTSB providing multiple, redundant, reliable communications anywhere/anytime.
"You can expect our Soldiers to go out, quickly assess the situation and provide communication support to whatever senior commanders are on the ground that are currently leading the recovery operation," Lt. Col Indira Donegan said, commander, 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 35th Theater Tactical Signal Brigade. "They'll set up an array of tactical satellite communications systems. They'll provide telephones and email support, and anything else you might need to pass information … from Point A to Point B to help get the recovery up and running and continue until completion."
"During disaster relief efforts, communications is undeniably the most important element in providing life-saving aid," said Donegan, "which has been providing communications support following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria".
"Without communications, there is no way to respond to emergency calls for help, or to coordinate the critical equipment, supplies and personnel needed to assist these devastated areas," Donegan said. "Our network communications equipment is restoring that critical communication lifeline both internally within these disaster zones and externally, connecting them to the outside world and to do it for fellow Americans that's the best."
As part of the federal response, DOD assumed a proactive stance by deploying assets early "due to the magnitude of Maria. Deployment preparations as well as alert and coordination procedures were well underway prior to Maria's landfall. This was permissible under the SecDef's severe weather execution order allowing NORTHCOM to deploy units under its own initiative. At the direction of the SecDef, USNORTHCOM quickly established a Joint Task Force (JTF-Maria) to provide command and control of deployed assets and anticipate the role DoD could play to save lives and restore services
One of the most notable comments from the team on the ground is "The training we have received prior to coming to the island has more than prepared us for this experience," said 2nd Lt. David Romero-Martinez, platoon leader, A Company, 63rd ESB, 35th TTSB. "Since my team's arrival on the ground, we have learned to adapt and provide help in more than just a communications capacity. The one lesson I feel needs to be relayed to every Soldier is no situation you encounter on any mission will be the same. Prepare for anything and arrive with an open mind."
America's military has responded to most major American disasters since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. As the response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria illustrates, even being an Army at war with 182K Soldiers currently supporting combatant commanders in 140 countries, America's Army stands ready and able to assist Americans in times of catastrophe.