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NEWS | Nov. 29, 2011

Emergency communications exercise answers the question: Can you hear me now?

By Staff Sgt. Carmen Gibson Florida National Guard

STARKE, Fla. - An explosion hits Jacksonville. Terrorist activity is suspected. Meanwhile, a smaller disturbance is reported in a neighboring town. Who is left to respond when the bulk of the resources have already been sent to the larger disaster? How can efforts be coordinated when communications are down? It's the perfect storm.

The Florida National Guard recently faced this scenario in Operation Omega, sponsored by the Region 3 Regional Domestic Security Task Force.

This simulated exercise was designed to test emergency response plans, policies and procedures as they pertain to bioterrorism. This was the largest communications functional exercise in state history, with 25 local, state and national emergency response agencies facing a strategic communications nightmare.

When a disaster occurs, people can easily lose phone communications and internet access, said Army Staff Sgt. Anthony Loizzi, with Company C of the 146th Expeditionary Signal Battalion.

"We can come out to an Emergency Operations Center and provide them with that communications network that they need to be able to run their operations," he said. "We can provide phones, Internet and any type of radio communications they might need if the towers are down and they can't communicate on their own."

Loizzi was in charge of one of the Regional Emergency Response Network (RERN) vehicles used in the exercise.

Although the RERN has been bridging the communications gap in disaster response for the last five years, many first responders are still unaware of the communication options provided by the mobile system.

Operation Omega provided the Florida National Guard with an opportunity to use these vehicles in a learning environment, educating the fire, law enforcement, urban search and rescue, hazardous materials, emergency medical services and special weapons and tactics teams on all of its continuously-evolving capabilities.

"There's some cellular being built in at this point. The downlink of the live video feeds is another piece we're working now," said Air Force Lt. Col. Loretta Lombard, commander of the 290th Joint Communications Support Squadron of the Florida Air National Guard.

"Each year we build on the capabilities; expand them and get more agencies aware of what's available to them to better serve their needs," she said.

At the conclusion of the day-long exercise, the Florida National Guard provided telephone, radio, video teleconferencing and internet connectivity to the responding agencies.

Through this accomplishment, area sheriffs' departments could talk with other agency command vehicles, video of the site was transmitted to air operations, the agencies instructed SWAT teams to evacuate an injured service member and EMS was notified to treat his injuries.

Lives were saved and a terrorist situation contained, all due to the power of communication. Although it was only a simulation, Operation Omega proved that if everyone comes together, the state can respond effectively to a wide-spread disaster, even when the situation seems most dire.

"If we ever have to communicate on a broad scale… our military partners in the National Guard allow us to bring groups of people together that otherwise would need some support that is not available within the civilian community," said Jeffrey Alexander, the exercise director and Northeast Florida Regional Council Emergency Preparedness Programs Director. "So as the National Guard and civilian responders work together, we have a way to talk, and that's what it's all about."

Plans are already in motion to make Operation Omega, or a similar exercise, a recurring event to further improve working relations and functionality with disaster responders for local, state and national agencies in the event that a real situation occurs.