Military, FEMA test communications

As part of a month-long communications exercise focused on interoperability among U.S. armed forces and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an Army Reserve unit on June 24 successfully completed a video teleconference with FEMA personnel halfway across the country.

Grecian Firebolt, which began June 1 and is scheduled to conclude today, has been testing interoperability among the Army, the Air Force and FEMA's Mobile Emergency Response communications teams. It includes reserve and active Army units, and Army and Air National Guard units connecting more than 30 sites throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

The 311th Theater Signal Command (TSC), an Army Reserve unit headquartered at Fort Meade, Md., led this year's exercise, which was designed, in part, to test the communications piece of a homeland defense scenario, said Maj. Gen. George Bowman, commander of the unit.

The homeland defense scenarios have included dealing with such things as potential mail bombs and protestors attempting to foil activities and influence soldiers, said Lt. Col. Thomas Chegash Jr., communications systems control element branch chief in the 311th TSC.

Those scenarios did not include attacks against communications or information technology systems, but did include reports of real-world situations, like virus updates, that participants had to deal with on the fly, said Maj. Anthony Britton, an action officer at Joint Forces Command, who was on hand to observe the exercises and the joint communications capabilities of the Army and Air Force.

The 311th TSC conducted a video teleconference with a FEMA office in Denton, Texas, as part of an exercise to ensure that the agency "has the bandwidth available in case we're faced with another" Sept. 11, said Ozzie Baldwin, FEMA's telecommunications manager of information processing in Denton.

Baldwin said that Grecian Firebolt has also helped FEMA establish procedures for communicating via e-mail on both secure and nonsecure networks with the Defense Department in a homeland defense scenario.

"We have established the procedures, and now they will be published and used in any deployment," he said. "In case of incident, we can immediately exchange e-mails," and that includes a Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET) connection between FEMA headquarters and DOD that was recently installed and tested during the exercise.

"Now, we can say for the next incident, we are ready," Baldwin said.

Grecian Firebolt, which cost more than $1.2 million to execute, focuses on the oversight and management of the tactical and strategic networks the Army and its partners use to communicate during a homeland security mission. It includes satellite links, line-of-sight tools, e-mail and videoteleconferencing (VTC), Chegash said.

"Overall, our base goal is training," Chegash said, adding that establishing the VTC link was one of the most difficult challenges in the exercise. "We have been troubleshooting for days. The equipment we have is old, not operator-friendly and difficult to set up."


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