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NEWS | Oct. 7, 2020

NY Guard aircrews streamline first responder communication

By Eric Durr New York National Guard

LATHAM, New York. – Thanks to assistance from New York State’s Office of Interoperable and Emergency Communications, New York Army National Guard helicopter aircrews can now talk quickly and easily to teams on the ground when responding to emergencies.

Teams from the office visited all three of New York’s Army Aviation Support Facilities to load frequencies used by fire departments, law enforcement, and other emergency teams across the country into the radios New York Army National Guard aviators use to talk to those with boots on the ground.

This means that if an Army Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew flies to support the Department of Environmental Conservation conducting a firefighting mission, they simply get the information on what presets to use and punch it into their radio, explained Mike Carl, a radio engineer with the office.

In the past, they would have had to land and take a Ranger on board with a handheld radio who could then talk to fire teams on the ground, Carl said.

The past few months, Carl and his colleagues, who are part of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, updated the radios in the CH-47 Chinooks, UH-72 Lakota Helicopters light utility helicopters, and the UH-60 A/L and UH-60 M Black Hawk helicopters operated by the New York Army National Guard.

Army helicopters are not configured to communicate with civilians on the ground, said Capt. Forest Thrush, operations officer at Army Aviation Support Facility #3 in Latham. Older model helicopters need an additional radio installed to let National Guard aircrew talk to first responders during domestic operations missions, he explained.

The UH-60 models flown by the 3rd Battalion, 142nd Aviation, in Latham and Ronkonkoma, and Company C, 1st Battalion, 171st General Aviation, the medical evacuation company in Rochester, have a military FM radio replaced with a TDFM-9000 radio, Thrush explained.

The new UH-60 M models, which will eventually replace the UH-60s flown at Ronkonkoma and Latham, are adapted for domestic operations use by adding an extra radio, Thrush said. This is in addition to the four radios already in the helicopters.

While the radios can be programmed by a pilot or co-pilot, it is easy to “fat finger” a code and make a mistake, Carl said. Loading the domestic operations frequencies ahead of time avoids that error and saves time.

Loading civilian communications channels into radios on military aircraft is part of the national push to ensure that emergency responders can always talk to each other, Carl said.

During the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, firefighters, police and the military couldn’t talk to each other directly, Carl said. His office, and others like it across the country, was created to correct that.

“The goal is to coordinate at a statewide level so that all first responders and agencies on a ‘bad day” scenario have an ability to communicate,“ Carl said.

He and other radio engineers use a laptop computer loaded with “hundreds and hundreds of channels” to upload data into the radios on New York Army National Guard helicopters, Carl said.

They also double and triple check the inputs to make sure the information is correct and works on the radios.

Many other agencies hire vendors to handle their radio programming. But DHSES supports the National Guard, as part of the NYS Division of Military and Naval Affairs, directly by uploading their frequencies.

Along with uploading the data – it took a full day to service nine aircraft during a Sept. 30 visit to the Latham flight facility – Carl and his colleagues also train Guard aircrew members how to use the systems.

“We give them some training on how to find the channels and what to expect when they go into an area of operations,” Carl said.