LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. – The Louisiana Army National Guard used its Disaster Incident Response Emergency Communications Terminal tool suite, known as DIRECT, to provide interagency first responder communication to synchronize Hurricane Ida relief efforts.
The DIRECT tool suite enables Army National Guard signal units to provide commercial phone, internet access, and commercial Wi-Fi to military and civilian first responders during domestic natural disasters, emergencies and civil support operations, even when local infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed.
DIRECT securely leverages the Army National Guard's organic satellite-based tactical network transport equipment, the same used by the Active-Duty Army, to enable robust global voice, video and data communications. The tool suite also has a radio bridging voice cross-banding capability that connects disparate radios operating on different frequencies. It interconnects military and first responder radios, cell phones, and internet telephones to enable seamless collaboration and synchronization across the entire response team.
Lessons learned from homeland disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 grimly highlighted that gaps in communication interoperability between military, government and non-government first responders can make the difference between life and death.
"DIRECT helps bridge those gaps in communication during response efforts, making it a lot faster to connect different agencies, so they can collaborate more quickly and effectively and send resources where they are needed most, saving lives and property," said Cpt. Stephen Pruser, signal office (S6) for New Jersey Army National Guard 44th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT).
Marking the final unit to be fielded with DIRECT, the Army's Project Manager Tactical Network, at the Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T) completed fielding and training the system for the 44th IBCT in August, at Lawrenceville, New Jersey. The project office fielded the first DIRECT system in fiscal year 2017, and now, the system is regionally fielded across the continental United States, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
"In a disaster response, time is everything; if we can coordinate better and faster, more lives will be saved," said Spc. Willy Zavala, network technician for the 44th IBCT, whose first mission in the Army National Guard was in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria in 2017.
The Army installed commercial internet and phone packages at its Regional Hub Nodes (RHNs) to support DIRECT and enable first responders to leverage the system to call any commercial cell phone or landline worldwide or obtain internet access, even when commercial towers are down.
"The Army's RHNs support the military's tactical side of the house, but DIRECT brings the two worlds together," Pruser said. "It provides that additional capability to share some bandwidth with the civilian side when needed to create a more homogeneous environment during response efforts."
The Army National Guard used DIRECT for the first time to provide critical communications capabilities to first responders after hurricanes Michael and Florence in 2018. The tool suite continues to provide lifesaving communications to support first responders — such as the police and fire departments, emergency medical technicians or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — during homeland response efforts, including multiple hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic.
It doesn't matter what type of disaster occurs; the easy to deploy, modular tool suite can be scaled to suit any size mission, including expanding it by adding additional DIRECT assets from other states, said Warrant 01 Mauricio Vega, network technician for the 44th IBCT.
"We don't know what the disaster situations will be until they hit," he said. "The system can be expanded or contracted to fit any specific need."
Now that DIRECT fieldings are complete, the Army will continue to support Army National Guard network modernization through comparable individual Army components, versus fielding full tool suites to units, said Robert Tisch, product manager for Network Modernization, Project Manager Tactical Network.
"We will always support our Army National Guard partners in arms in the homeland with the lifesaving communications equipment and support they need to be successful in their missions," Tisch said. "Their efforts are vital to the security and safety of our nation."
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.