NEWS | July 4, 2015

Local, state, federal agencies make ‘Vital Connection’ with Slovenian counterparts

By 2nd Lt. Cheresa D. Clark Colorado National Guard

LITTLETON, Colo. – Nearly 200 personnel representing multiple first response, military, private-sector and nonprofit agencies set up their hard drives and antennas at the Highlands Ranch Law Enforcement Training Facility July 13-15 for a full-scale, state-wide interoperable communications exercise.

Dubbed Vital Connection 2015, 27 agencies representing federal, state and local jurisdictions participated in the biannual exercise designed to control and mitigate communications issues in a simulated emergency.

"The thrust of the exercise is interoperability between military and civilian counterparts when they may be called into play during a large-scale disaster, whether natural or manmade," said Jack Cobb, incident commander for Vital Connection 2015.

The exercise familiarized, displayed, coordinated and tested participant mobile emergency communication plans and platforms.

"Historically, military and civil communications systems haven't been interoperable," Cobb said. "We're trying to use various communications paths so the communications flow between military-civilian, civilian-civilian, and military-military channels."

The training event included an exercise designed to test the interoperability of between local, regional, state, federal, and non-governmental organizations, and defense communications and data sharing, and included all participants in an organized communications exercise, via the National Incident Management System/Incident Command System.

While their equipment was being tested outside, an indoor scenario simulated a major cyberattack, which was designed to allow players to practice and share their knowledge and discuss various courses of action in an open, no-fault forum.

The Colorado National Guard, in tandem with Colorado's Office of Information Technology, led the cyber exercise in an effort to validate Emergency Support Function 2A, the cyber communications function.

Included in the cyber exercise was participation from the Slovenian Armed Forces, who have been partnered with the Colorado National Guard since 1993 through the National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program.

"The weakest link in cyber operations is humans, so for us, the most important things we can do is establish trust," said Maj. Mihael Plevnik, cyber defense section chief for the Slovenian Armed Forces, who notes SAF is currently using similar training and validation processes.

The SPP is a low-cost, small-footprint Department of Defense program managed by the National Guard Bureau and executed by the states. It connects a state's National Guard with a partner nation's military to grow an enduring, mutually beneficial relationship.

"Sharing this knowledge and practices builds our combined capabilities," said Col. Boris Cimprič, chief of communications, Slovenian Armed Forces, who is responsible for communications and information systems, and cyber defense for the Slovenian Armed Forces.

"Colorado is known as one of the lead cyber states," said Army Col. Gregory A. Miller, chief information officer for the Colorado National Guard, who noted that members of his staff have been tasked multiple times to teach for NATO due to their knowledge and expertise in communications.

Throughout the indoor and outdoor events, players exercised emergency response plans, policies, and procedures as they pertain to coordination between local, state, federal, and non-governmental organizations in emergency communications and interoperability across disciplines and jurisdictions.

"Just two weeks after the Colorado's inaugural Vital Connection exercise in 2013, we were deployed to the Black Forest fire, where we set up the command center almost immediately, because we worked with the same exact people who came to the exercise," said Miller. "And we continued to execute the communications plans we made (at the exercise) during the floods."

The interoperable communications operations and multiagency coordination between emergency operations centers, and public safety answering points in the region, included communications and resource requests.

"When you do these exercises and get good at it, it saves Colorado's resources, homes and properties, because we're already integrated and know each other's capabilities," Miller said. "We'd have never been able to do that unless we'd exercised it in the past."