WHITEVILLE, N.C. - The North Carolina Army National Guard used its new tactical network communication tool suite, known as the Disaster Incident Response Emergency Communications Terminal, or DIRECT, to provide lifesaving communications capabilities to first responders during the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.
The Army's Project Manager (PM) Tactical Network fielded DIRECT to the North Carolina Army National Guard in December 2017, and this was the first time the state deployed this asset to support an incident.
DIRECT enables Army National Guard Signal Soldiers to provide emergency responders with commercial phone and internet access, and 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 uses the Army National Guard's organic satellite-based tactical network transport equipment, the same used by the Active Army, to securely leverage the Army's robust tactical communications network, which enables mission command and voice, video and data communications anywhere in the world without the need for static infrastructure.
"DIRECT absolutely provided us with what we wanted and needed to support the emergency management and first responders on the ground during the Hurricane Florence response effort," said Maj. Robert N. Felicio, chief information officer/G6 for the North Carolina National Guard. "Having DIRECT in the state provides us with capability that previous systems just didn't have. It enables us to provide first responders with anything they need from a communication perspective, and it can be scaled up or down [to fit the scale of the mission]."
The North Carolina Army National Guard 295th Signal Network Support Company (NSC), 130th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade successfully employed DIRECT to support the Columbus County Emergency Management 911 Dispatch in Whiteville. Local land line phones were down in that area, and the 295th NSC used the system's Commercial Coalition Equipment (CCE), coupled with the units' organic satellite capability, to provide commercial phone service so the 911 dispatchers could receive and respond to emergency calls.
Within the first 24 hours of operation, 117 emergency calls were routed through the DIRECT system into the Emergency Operations Center and 911 Center, Felicio said.
At a second response site in Kinston, North Carolina, the state's Army National Guard 113th Sustainment Brigade (SB) employed DIRECT to support a first responder staging area. This site was used to coordinate all emergency response moving into areas around New Bern, North Carolina, which endured a catastrophic storm surge. The unit successfully set up and validated all components of DIRECT. The unit mostly employed the CCE for phone service, as well as Wi-Fi capabilities to support emergency response operations, such as sending reports, in the staging area covered by the Wi-Fi bubble. Although it was not needed for emergency response support at this site, first responders used the 4G LTE to call their families to ensure they were safe.
During disaster response, the National Guard coordinates with numerous local first responders such a police, fire and rescue organizations and agencies such as the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Each entity often brings different communication equipment.
DIRECT comes with a radio bridging voice cross-banding capability that connects military and first responder radios operating on different frequencies. It also interconnects radios, cell phones, and internet phones, known as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phones, for seamless collaboration. Although the Radio Bridging Voice Cross Banding capability was not used during the Hurricane Florence response, the unit successfully set up and validated the system and would have been ready to employ it.
By the end of this month, the Army will have equipped 22 states (24 systems; hurricane-prone states get two) out of the planned 54 U.S. states and territories with DIRECT.
"The damage and loss of life from Hurricane Florence was devastating, but it was mitigated by the first responders, including the Army National Guard, who were true heroes," said Matthew Maier, product manager for Network Modernization, assigned to PM Tactical Network, which fields and manages DIRECT. "The DIRECT system enabled the Army National Guard units to provide critical communication capabilities where they were most needed, so the first responders could continue to help residents in the disaster zone get out of harms' way." 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.