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National Guard getting disaster communications system

By Amy Walker | U.S. Army Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical | June 28, 2018

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - June marks the start of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, and U.S. states and territories are keeping an eye to the sky as they continue to rebuild in the wake of last year's string of devastating storms.

Fortunately, if disaster strikes again, Army National Guard units will be able to use their tactical network communication tool suite, known as the Disaster Incident Response Emergency Communications Terminal, or DIRECT. This system will provide critical communications capabilities to emergency responders and relief organizations, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross, to help coordinate and speed relief efforts.

DIRECT enables National Guard Signal Soldiers to provide emergency responders with commercial phone and internet access, along with commercial Wi-Fi and 4G LTE, during domestic natural disasters, emergencies and civil support operations, even when local infrastructure has been completely destroyed. The system also has a voice bridging capability that connects military and first responder radios operating on different frequencies. It also interconnects radios, cell phones, and internet phones - known as Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP phones - for seamless collaboration.

"As we saw way back in Hurricane Katrina, you can have a multitude of agencies from local counties, state and federal, all showing up at the incident site. They all bring their own capabilities and none of them work together; they don't share information and they can't talk to each other. It becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to coordinate an overarching strategy for dealing with the disaster," said Maj. Jeffrey Couillard, communications officer (G-6) for the National Guard Bureau's Mission Command Branch.

"With DIRECT, someone can show up with a cell phone and talk to somebody on a military radio who is also talking to someone on a first responder radio, and it works flawlessly," Couillard said. "A person sitting 1,000 miles away on a VoIP phone at a desk can call our network and we can patch them to someone on a radio. They can call from anywhere in the country [or the world], and get to that first responder who is out saving people."

DIRECT securely leverages the Army National Guard's organic satellite-based tactical network transport equipment, the same used by the Active 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.

To date, 20 states out of the planned 54 U.S. states and territories have received the system. These units are now ready to deploy DIRECT if called upon to support disaster relief efforts or other civil support missions.

"When disasters strike, we need to be prepared," said Spc. Renee McConnell of the Indiana National Guard 738th Signal Company, which was equipped with DIRECT in January 2018. "During a natural disaster, cell towers are very likely to be one of the first things to come down. With DIRECT, we are able to essentially be our own Verizon or AT&T towers. We are able to open that up and provide that service [to first responders]."

DIRECT is replacing the legacy Joint Incident Site Communication Capability, or JISCC, previously used by some Army National Guard units. Although JISCC assisted first responder communications at the incident site, it did not enable the military and first responders to directly communicate over the Army's robust tactical network. Additionally, unlike JISCC, DIRECT falls under a funded Army program of record, so training and sustainment are built into the program. This stability will enable the Guard to more easily and cost effectively operate, manage and maintain the equipment.

The Army National Guard plans to inject DIRECT into the cooperative disaster response training exercises it regularly conducts with state emergency response agencies to validate and ensure disaster response plans are effective.

"Cross training with emergency response organizations will help ensure that state operational personnel, not just the signal Soldiers, can actually see what the capability is and incorporate it into their response plans," Couillard said.

As the readiness noncommissioned officer for the Indiana National Guard 738th Signal Company, Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Schnieders encourages other Guard units that have or will be fielded with DIRECT to "embrace and explore" its capabilities.

"If you treat it in a positive manner, engage the training, realize the importance of it and instill that into your Soldiers, the return on investment of having this system in your inventory is substantial," Schnieders said.

"We started reaching out to our local sheriff department, our local fire department, within our county, and as we learned how those first responders communicate and talk amongst themselves, internally and within their own groups, we started seeing that honeycomb effect pretty quickly, the different cells of first responders [that form] out there. The need for them all to talk together is very important, especially in a large catastrophic event. We now have a device, DIRECT, which can link them together, get the mission done and save people's lives. That is pretty profound."

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.