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Guard asset supports critical communications during recent natural disasters

By Tech. Sgt. Erich B. Smith | National Guard Bureau | September 22, 2017

ARLINGTON, Va. – After communication infrastructures in hurricane-affected areas of the Gulf Coast and American territories in the Caribbean were decimated, a decade-old National Guard asset that eliminates communication gaps was activated.

The Joint Incident Site Communications Capability (JISCC) offers a communications bridge to first responders tasked with saving lives and protecting property during the domestic emergencies that resulted from this year's historically catastrophic hurricane season.

According to Guard officials, 18 JISCC systems were deployed to support relief efforts after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma made landfall. In response to Hurricane Maria, there are currently four JISCCs on-site in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with more to arrive.

The communications package is a representation of Guard readiness and capabilities, said Army Maj. Jason Franklin, a program manager for the JISCC.

"The National Guard is constitutionally mandated to respond and care for the homeland, and our domestic mission is contingent on the JISCC for communications," Franklin said.

Kevin Holland, a deputy division chief of the Joint Command, Control, Communications and Computers branch at the National Guard Bureau, said that "9/11 glaringly exposed the communications challenges and gaps that had to be filled in the chain between civilians and the military" during a domestic disaster.

Eventually, Holland added, a prototype of the JICSS system used during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 proved the concept "could do what we wanted it to do."

Using allocated bandwidth coordinated by U.S. Northern Command, the JISCC system relies on satellite communications that enable the use of High-frequency (HF) radio, data, video and voice capabilities. A mobile system that can be air lifted, it also fits in the back of an 18-foot trailer, equipped with its own lighting and power generation, and a satellite dish.

"It's an all-inclusive communication package that is designed to be interoperable with first responders, and that's a key and unique element," Franklin said."We have to speak on multiple platforms with first responders that are out there helping us [Guard members] to get our hands dirty and we are enabling them to get their hands dirty and save lives."

But technological wonders aside, he added, the JISCC system also harnesses ongoing relationship building among Guard members and civilian-led forces, and between state National Guard units through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC).

Franklin pointed to an example involving states nearly 3,000 miles away from each other.

"The Florida National Guard took out an EMAC from Illinois [National Guard] and pulled them down to Monroe County, Florida, which got hit the worst from Irma," he said."As the first responders were waist-deep in water – fishing people out, fishing pets out – the JISCC was directly supporting emergency operation centers that were coordinating and communicating for food and clean water."

Standard blocks of JISCC systems are constantly upgraded to the latest, fastest version of existing technology, with an emerging 5G wireless connection, which, according to National Guard officials, will dramatically increase the speed at which data is transferred across networks.

Recently, the Guard rolled out the latest generation of a JISCC with a mission tied directly to Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Environmental (CBRNE) response efforts.

JISCC is also on-site for agencies battling wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, and according to Air Force Maj. Brian W. Tennort, Chief of the Joint Command, Control, Communications and Computers branch at the NGB, the systems package is used as a communications backup for non-crisis events such as sports and civil affairs events.

"When the JISCC goes out into the field, the National Guard becomes the service provider for first responders," Tennort said.

Hurricane Irma Hurricane Maria