Responders test coordination skills

FEMA fans out

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has 275 mobile disaster telecommunication assistance units dispersed at a handful of locations throughout the country that are designed to arrive quickly on the scene of a disaster. These Mobile Emergency Response Support units can coordinate telecommunications, radio transmissions, electricity and Internet needs for first responders.

Many agencies use bridging system devices to allow communications between multiple radio systems operating on different frequencies as well as VOIP channels to communicate directly with one another.

— Ben Bain

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies converged in southern Virginia last week to demonstrate and test the interoperability of the communications systems that will need to work together for the agency’s disaster response plans to succeed.

FEMA has expanded its repertoire of scripted response plans, from 44 in 2006 to more than 240 now. It has also increased the number of agencies it coordinates with in creating scripted scenarios for such exercises, from four to 31, said Glenn Cannon, assistant administrator of FEMA's Disaster Operations Directorate.

The exercise, hosted by the Northern Command’s Joint Task Force Civil Support (JTF-CS) at Fort Monroe, Va., is an example of one of several ways that FEMA and its coordinating agencies have sought to improve their performance. Other measures include a national communications plan and the National Response Framework. “We don’t want to wait until we are in the middle of an event to call our friends at DOD and say, ‘You know, now we need some help,’ ” Cannon said.

“This exercise is all about how we pull together the capabilities in a whole government approach to a disaster,” Gen. Victor Renuart Jr., Northcom’s commander, said during the event.

“The notion that some might have thought that we have not learned the lessons of 9/11 or Katrina, or the lessons of Hurricane Dean, or the California wildfires is just not well-founded,” Renuart said.

“We’re generations better than we were during Katrina.”

JTF-CS coordinates the Defense Department’s support for FEMA during national emergency responses, and it assists states after the president issues a disaster declaration.

In the DOD Interoperability Communications Exercise (DICE), participants had an opportunity to identify communications shortfalls and mismatches between radio encryption and information systems technologies.

The exercise tested how well participants were able to use Northcom’s Web portal, the Homeland Security Department’s Homeland Security Information Network and various satellite communications.

Although it was not a real-time event like other exercises, it required various agencies to test the interoperability of their equipment in the field.

Interoperability success requires agencies to work with different systems from all levels of government. Replacing existing communications equipment to achieve interoperability at state and local levels would cost about $40 billion, Cannon said. “Communications are the backbone of emergency response.”

Disaster response begins at a local level with first responders, so it is critical that state and local authorities can communicate with one another, emergency officials say.

“It doesn’t do us any good to have the capability to talk to one another if we don’t speak the same language and we don’t understand what we are saying when we do,” said Bob Moseley, technical adviser at the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice. “We’ve got to get together and talk among each other and share ideas and concepts and only then will we be able to play together when it becomes real.”

Bennet Bolton, a colleague of Moseley and also a sergeant at the Alexandria, Va., Police Department, endorsed the idea of having national standards to support collaboration across governmental jurisdictions.

That way “I know at my level what I am allowed and not allowed to do and that my counterpart in the next jurisdiction has the same limitations or responsibilities,” he said.

The benefit of an exercise such as DICE comes from getting people to meet and work together before a crisis happens.

“Technology is usually the easiest part,” Moseley said. “The people, the politics and the paperwork are the hard part.” 

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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