Unless you’re a technology guru, the term “communications” can be boring and often ignored – until your cell phone or laptop quit operating unexpectedly.
However, when practicing a mass-scale scenario in which multiple communications systems go down at once, the ability to use technology to talk is taken very seriously by the professionals charged with keeping the systems operational.
To that end, more than 200 personnel, including first responders, federal agencies, and local military assets from a total of 14 agencies, gathered at the Highlands Ranch Law Enforcement Training Facility in Littleton, Colo., May 16 to test communication capabilities necessary for emergency response efforts.
Sponsored by U.S. Northern Command in conjunction with the Colorado Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, the agencies combined efforts to ensure military and civilian video, telecommunication, and data signals could interoperate effortlessly.
The exercise, dubbed Vital Connection 2013, was designed to establish a learning environment that gave emergency response officials, military personnel, and other players and observers the information necessary to focus on the respective participants’ emergency response plans.
"The main theme of this exercise is to demonstrate how civilian teams can get outside connectivity using National Guard assets," said Paul Garvey, communications unit leader for the Jefferson County Incident Management Team.
With today’s technology rapidly advancing, it might be taken for granted by the average Colorado citizen that, when a crisis strikes, we all speak the same language, Miller said.. Therefore, at the incident level, incident site communications capability and voice interoperability between the National Guard and other emergency responders is a necessity.
Chief Master Sgt. Mark Waibel of the Colorado Air National Guard's 140th Communications Flight explained how, using a Joint Incident Site Communication Capabilities kit, the National Guard has the ability to use military communication assets to give civilian parties the capability to interact via phone and internet.
The JISCC kit itself is a mobile set of commercial and government off-the-shelf communications hardware designed to provide onsite and reach-back communications capabilities, a link, for enhanced command and control, and shared situational awareness among first responders and state and federal command authorities.
"We have fully self-contained kits that include generators, air conditioners, tents, and communications equipment – including video telecommunications capabilities – packed into a trailer,” said Waibel. “We are a highly deployable unit – whether to a city or the middle of the desert.”
The JISCC can interconnect any audio device including cell phones, UHF, VHF, 700 megahertz and 800 MHz mobile radios, satellite phones, and the military’s Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System, and is fully compliant with all police, fire, and emergency medical services.
“With technology, things change every day,” said Colorado Army National Guard Col. Gregory Miller, chief information officer and Vital Connection co-director. “We must test this equipment and be focused and detailed in our execution to fulfill the requirement expected from the National Guard Bureau, our civilian partners, and the citizens of Colorado when a disaster strikes.”
“The military is extremely mobile,” said Miller. “Our civilian counterparts have advanced communications capabilities, but their mobility is limited. We can deploy JISCC kits and personnel by air or ground.”
Further, this system enables the user to establish a private, enterprise communications network, which is vital during major disasters and deployed operations – and any event that requires discrete and robust communications.
This operational ability was key in 2005 when Colorado’s National Guard Communications Element deployed in support of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, allowing the Guardsmen to effectively establish a communications “bubble” over an area several miles wide.
At the time, only a few of the JISCC kits had been fielded by the military.
Since then, the Colorado National Guard’s JISCC kit has also seen service following the 2008 tornado in Windsor, Colo., and the High Park fire in 2012, in northern Colorado, and for a number of training exercises designed to keep the kit’s operators proficient.
Ultimately, Miller said Vital Connection 2013 proved that when communications networks go down during an emergency, as a team, the civilian-military partnership has the capabilities and knowledge to bring them back online.
“It was the first time we have conducted this kind of exercise and it was the largest communications exercise in the history of Colorado,” Miller said, noting that the exercise was also intended to identify areas for improvement and policy refinement in order for the agencies to provide the best possible communications services during disasters or large-scale emergencies.
“We now have a baseline of knowledge of what we bring to an all-hazards event and can move forward into additional plans to support all-hazards events,” Miller said.