NORTH RIVERSIDE, Ill. (March 12, 2018) -- Floods. Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Terrorist Attacks. The U.S. can't hide from the long list of potential natural or even manmade disasters on U.S. soil, but it can be prepared for them.

Lessons learned from previous homeland disasters highlighted the fact that communication interoperability among military, government and non-government first responders can make the difference between life and death. In a proactive effort to improve force readiness, the Army is equipping all U.S. states and territories with a National Guard presence with a new tool suite, known as the Disaster Incident Response Emergency Communications Terminal, or more simply, DIRECT. This system enables National Guard signal units to provide commercial phone, internet access, and commercial Wi-Fi and 4G LTE to first responders -- military, government and non-governmental -- during domestic natural disasters, emergencies and civil support operations.

"We all use different radios on different frequencies or cell phones. DIRECT allows us to bridge that gap, to tie them together to have one voice and one central hub," said Chief Warrant Officer2 Robert Dobbs, Illinois Army National Guard senior network engineer with the G6 (communications) Tactical Branch -- South. "I see this system as being a very valuable asset to the state and the National Guard, enabling us to work hand-in-hand with local responders in the event of a major disaster."

DIRECT securely leverages the National Guard's organic satellite-based tactical network transport equipment, the same used by the Army, to tap into the Army's robust tactical network, which enables mission command and voice, video and data communications anywhere in the world without need of static infrastructure.

"DIRECT enables the National Guard to assist civilian police, firefighter, and emergency management organizations with communications, even if all the commercial cell towers went down. It's an Army system that enables non-military communications, so we can all work together to save lives," said Cpt. Alanna Wood, commander of the Illinois Army National Guard 406th Signal Company.

The Army provided the 406th Signal Company with advanced training during the unit's quarterly communication exercise, at North Riverside, Illinois in late February 2018, in addition to the new equipment training the service provided to the unit in January 2018. The 406th is part of a string of units that are piloting the DIRECT tool suite to provide real-time Soldier feedback to enable the Army to use that input to improve the system ahead of official fielding. Since DIRECT falls under an Army program, training and sustainment are built into the capability, enabling the Guard to operate, manage and maintain the equipment more easily and cost effectively compared to the previous capability.

"We will continue to rapidly equip units with DIRECT in an effort to speed up the acquisition cycle and get critical capability into the hands of these Soldiers to ensure their units are well-trained and prepared to 'fight tonight' when a humanitarian disaster strikes the homeland," said Lt. Col. Mark Henderson, product manager for Network Modernization, assigned to Project Manager Tactical Network, which manages DIRECT for the Army.

In addition to the commercial phone and internet services, DIRECT provides commercial Wi-Fi and 4G LTE capabilities at incident site command centers, for improved disaster relief management. The tool suite also comes with a voice bridging capability that connects disparate radios operating on different frequencies, and it interconnects military and first responder radios, cell phones and internet telephones, to enable a seamless collaboration and synchronization across the entire team.

"I have seen first responders or military personnel carrying three or four radios because they support different frequencies or different model numbers," Dobbs said. "This capability allows us to have one central hub that enables you to call in from a radio, and with a few clicks of a button, reconnect to someone with a different radio or to a cell phone. Having that ability enables us to get information out faster and can help us protect the public and save lives."

On the current timeline the Army anticipates completing the DIRECT equipping effort in fiscal year 2021. To date, 17 states (18 systems; hurricane-prone states get two) out of the planned 54 U.S. states and territories have the DIRECT system, which they can deploy if needed to support disaster relief efforts or other civil missions should a disaster wreak havoc on the homeland. Upcoming pre-fielding pilots include Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Although not equipped yet with DIRECT, units from the Illinois Army National Guard were among the many joint forces deployed to Puerto Rico to help with disaster relief efforts following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September 2017. In lieu of the full DIRECT system, Project Manager Tactical Network rapidly deployed 10 of its small form factor Commercial Coalition Equipment packages, known as CCE, to enhance the ability of the Army's 35th Expeditionary Signal Battalion (headquartered in Fort Allen, Puerto Rico) to provide commercial phone and internet services on the island. CCE is the capability that enables units to provide those commercial phone and internet services to other entities. The versatile CCE is either deployed separately to support Army units, or as part of the expanded DIRECT tool suite fielded to the National Guard.

"In a disaster situation where all the cell towers go down - and we saw that in Puerto Rico where they had no source of power or way to communicate -- DIRECT will enable cell phones, text messaging, and email to work. These are basic forms of communication that everyone uses and takes for granted every day," Wood said. "DIRECT really brings us into the 21st century in terms of providing communications."

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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.