Army tweaked comm system for disaster relief

Battle-tested Joint Network Node pressed into action following Katrina

The Army's battlefield communications system proved its ability to adapt to any mission when disaster relief workers used it after Hurricane Katrina.

A modified version of the new Joint Network Node (JNN), which soldiers use in Iraq, provided voice and data communications services in September to help relief efforts along the Gulf Coast.

On Sept. 21, the Army delivered the first trailer to local officials working at the St. Tammany Parish Emergency Operations Center near New Orleans. The trailer contained a satellite dish and networking equipment, 20 voice-over-IP telephones and several notebook computers. The Army added capabilities to the system a week later to include more networking gear and 100 cellular phones to increase communications.

Some officials in St. Tammany Parish working on Katrina relief efforts could communicate with one another before receiving the modified JNN system. But it expanded their reach, allowing them to share data and speak with other local, state and federal officials, said Rodney Hart, the parish's deputy director of homeland security and emergency preparedness, in an Army statement.

"We lost communications not so much inside the parish but in trying to reach the outside," Hart said.

In less than two weeks, the Army distributed eight modified versions of JNN, called Satellite Communications Transportable Terminals (STTs), to communities and agencies affected by Katrina.

"I felt good about doing something that crossed all borders," said Chief Warrant Officer Joe Kobsar, team leader of the Special Projects and Homeland Security Office in the Army Communications-Electronics Life Cycle Management Command at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

Kobsar led a team of soldiers and contractors, including DataPath and Qualcomm, that developed, delivered and operated the STTs. He said the system works well in combat and disaster relief efforts because it operates without the aid of an infrastructure.

The Army learned from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that its Mobile Subscriber Equipment-Triservices Tactical terminals did not provide communications when soldiers fought out of sight of one another in desert or mountain terrain. So the service bought JNN, developed by DataPath and General Dynamics, for more mobile and comprehensive voice, video and data communications. The 3rd Infantry Division now uses it in Iraq.

Kobsar's team arrived Sept. 5 at Camp Shelby, Miss., to support government agencies working on hurricane relief efforts. However, the team received orders Sept. 17 from Northern Command to develop a system so communities in the New Orleans area could communicate with local, state and federal officials.

Two days later, they gathered some of the components used in JNN and moved them to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to carry out the new mission. DataPath shipped one STT from the company's facility in Atlanta. It arrived at St. Tammany Parish Sept. 21.

"We had units in storage," said Alan Carson, senior director of government sales at DataPath. "So they were ready to go."

The DataPath 3000 unit consists of a satellite dish and networking equipment mounted in a trailer. It provides mobile satellite communications in the Ku-band frequency and Single Channel per Carrier and Time Division Multiple Access transmissions.

The STTs do not work without a satellite communications link, which Qualcomm helped provide.

The Army recently shut down the STTs because the telecommunications companies that service the area had repaired their networks. But the state of Louisiana could take permanent ownership of the systems as federal, state and local officials work out the details, said industry officials familiar with the situation.

Dialing in

At left, soldiers from the 56th Signal Battalion at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, work on the Satellite Communications Transportable Terminal (STT) that helped officials in the St. Tammany Parish near New Orleans communicate with other local, state and federal officials during Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

Sgt. Robert Daniels, a cable section chief (top); Spec. Corey Kelly, a cable installer; and retired Staff Sgt. Joe Lewis, a satellite communications specialist (bottom), level the STT by adjusting the front-end lift of the trailer that carries the satellite dish. The system is a modified version of the Joint Network Node, the Army's new modular, mobile, IP-based battlefield communications system used in Iraq.

-- Frank Tiboni

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