Magazine article National Defense

Can You Hear Me? after Several Recent National Disasters, Gaps in Emergency Communications Still Not Fixed

Magazine article National Defense

Can You Hear Me? after Several Recent National Disasters, Gaps in Emergency Communications Still Not Fixed

Article excerpt

FORT MONROE, Va. -- The ability of military and civilian first responders to communicate during major national emergencies is improving, but roadblocks remain, officials said. Among the problems is that many first responders lack adequate knowledge of their communications equipment.

A small, multi-service military unit, based at this historic facility, is taking a lead role in finding solutions to a knotty national security problem: How can the uniformed services communicate with federal, state and local agencies--and each other--in the aftermath of a major disaster such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina?

Amid the massive destruction wrought by such events, normal means of communications, such as landline telephone and cell phone service, often are disrupted, noted Air Force Col. Babette Lenfant, director of communications systems for the Northern Command's joint task force civil support.

"If they're down, how do first responders communicate with each other? There are alternatives," she told National Defense. "We try to use a layered approach--landlines, cell phones, BlackBerries, pagers, wireless laptop and PC cards, Iridium satellite phones, tactical radios. If one system doesn't work, try another."

A major problem is that local first responders, state and federal relief agencies, and military services are equipped with a hodgepodge of differing systems that often can't communicate with each other.

Lenfant heads a 25-member communications-planning team that is working to find ways around the problem. The team--drawn from the Army, Air Force and Navy--is part of a task force created within NORTHCOM to coordinate military support to the civilian agency heading up the federal response to an incident involving a weapon of mass destruction.

NORTHCOM, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., was established in 2002 as a joint command to improve the ability of all of the military services to protect the domestic United States against such an event. Its mission since has widened to include providing military support following natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes.

The communications team's job is to find ways for military units to talk to their civilian counterparts following disasters, Lenfant said. Every year, she explained, the team serves as the task force's representative in the Defense Department's interoperability communications exercise. DICE, which sponsored by the Defense Information Systems Agency's joint interoperability test command, provides an opportunity for local, state and federal agencies, as well as military units, to practice communicating with each other, as they would have to do during a major disaster.

This year's exercise took place from February through April here at Fort Monroe; Fort Monmouth, N.J; Fort Huachuca, Ariz.; Camp Pendleton, Calif.; and, Okinawa, Japan. Participants included communications, units from each of the military services, NORCOM, National Guard, Department of Homeland Security, Coast Guard, and city, county and state first responders.

The Air Force sent one of its three-person Hammer adaptive communications element (ACE) teams, which can deploy anywhere, worldwide, within three hours of notification to provide instant and reliable links with relief agencies. A Hammer ACE team carries with it an Iridium satellite phone, a UHF satellite radio, international maritime satellite terminals, a land mobile radio, a video teleconferencing unit, a global positioning system receiver, cell phones, laptop computers and a facsimile machine.

The Hammer ACE system can operate with commercial power, and if that fails, lithium or vehicle batteries, solar panels and portable generators.

The Hammer ACE team deploys with the task force, Lenfant explained. The team provides an ability to communicate rapidly with a wide range of entities, including first responders in the field; federal, state and local government offices; private disaster-assistance groups; news media, and military headquarters. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.