Magazine article National Defense

Missing Links: Feds Pursue Better Communication Paths

Magazine article National Defense

Missing Links: Feds Pursue Better Communication Paths

Article excerpt

Chief Warrant Officer Joe Kobsar was the man the joint task force called in to help restore downed civilian communication links in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As the technical director of the Army's Northeast Regional Response Center at Fort Dix, N.J., he had a solution on hand: an incorporated deployable cellular system designed to fit in the back of a Humvee. Two soldiers could set it up and have it operating in a little over 20 minutes.

Within a few days of receiving the call, Kobsar's teams had eight units up and running in eight spots all over Louisiana, including on top of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in beleaguered downtown New Orleans.

"This was the first time we ever crossed borders," Kobsar said referring to a military team that assisted civilian agencies communicate in a disaster.

When it comes to interoperable communications systems--between the military and civilian agencies, between jurisdictions and between federal agencies--there are many borders to cross. Experts say it will be years before the holy grail of communications interoperability will be reached. But efforts are underway.

Hurricane Katrina--a disaster covering thousands of square miles and involving the military, Federal Emergency, Management Agency, Coast Guard, and scores of local police, fire and rescue units--further underscored the necessity of interoperability.

The Defense Department provided several ad hoc solutions to solve communication problems. The cellular system Kobsar deployed under a material assistance request from Louisiana had been in use less than a year and was untested in such a real-world situation.

The unit is designed for ease of use, according to Bill Clingempeel, the director of business development for government technologies at Qualcomm. "Chances are, when you're in that type of environment, you're not going to have a super-trained operator," said Clingempeel, who assisted Kobsar in Louisiana.

The system comes in three pieces, two weighing 160 pounds each, and a third containing a lightweight antenna that connects to a satellite. Once operational, it can link to mobile phones and emergency responder radio bands.

Qualcomm is one of several manufacturers hoping to fill the interoperable communications void in the military and domestic realms. Raytheon and L-3 Communications are among other companies that have similar systems.

What the new devices can't do is directly link a domestic communications system into the military's intranet. Legal and security barriers prevent that, Kobsar said. However, first responders and the Coast Guard were able to communicate with the military through radios and secure cell phones.

Before widespread interoperability not requiting such on-the-fly solutions can be achieved, individual agencies must be able to communicate within their own ranks, and that is not always the case, communication experts said. The military has struggled to link the four services for years. The Departments of Homeland Security and Justice have a hodgepodge of wireless systems for each of their law enforcement agencies. Local police and fire departments in neighboring communities may not be able to talk to each other.

"As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, in the absence of a reliable network across which responders within an agency can effectively communicate, interoperability is neither possible nor relevant," David Boyd, director of DHS' office of interoperability and compatibility, told a House homeland security subcommittee hearing.

Boyd's office was charged in the wake of 9/11 with connecting wireless communication systems across federal, state, local, tribal and public safety agencies. It is, by all accounts, a daunting task.

DHS' answer to the problem of local agencies unable to communicate with each other is the SAFECOM initiative, a vision of a national "system-of-systems" that first responders can use anywhere in the country, using their own equipment, on any network, and using one dedicated public safety radio band, Boyd said. …

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