NCS holds emergency nets

The National Communications System sustains telecom critical to emergency response

When the World Trade Center towers, some of the surrounding buildings and a section of the Pentagon collapsed, a lot of telecommunications capability critical to emergency response was lost. Enter the National Communications System, the heartbeat of America's rapid response network in times of crisis.

NCS staff members are working feverishly to monitor networks, find ways to reroute communications and facilitate cooperation between rival network carriers so that rescue attempts, humanitarian efforts, and military command and control efforts run as smoothly as possible.

They are leading efforts to restore damaged networks in New York, maintain communications with the White House, the Pentagon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other government agencies and the telecommunications companies.

"We have one major [telecom] carrier who had a major switch, and the backup power was running low on diesel," said Brenton Greene, NCS deputy manager. "So it's from here that [NCS staff members] have been calling in and coordinating with the New York City leadership and the state police to help get a fuel truck into an area they're not letting anyone get into. This is fuel that's designated to go to this key site that will keep these switches up to maintain connectivity."

NCS draws on the resources of 22 federal departments and agencies to coordinate emergency telecom efforts following natural disasters, such as tornadoes, hurricanes and floods. It also supports critical wartime efforts such as Desert Storm and plays a role in worldwide humanitarian aid efforts.

President Kennedy created NCS in 1962 following the Cuban missile crisis.

The secretary of Defense is the NCS executive agent, and Greene runs its day-to-day operations. Through cooperation with the other agencies and industry partners—including Verizon Communications, AT&T and Sprint -- NCS is coordinating efforts to maintain communications for emergency efforts.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Greene and NCS staff used the telephone, e-mail and whatever other means would work to remind key governmental officials and telecom partners to use their priority calling cards designed, which were designed for use be used in emergencies. Emergency operations might otherwise be hampered by jammed communications lines.

The organization's National Coordinating Center, housed within the lower levels of the Defense Information Systems Agency headquarters in Arlington, Va., is the hub of NSC's activity. Although not normally staffed, during the crisis it has been operated by up to 12 people, some of them from industry partners that offered help.

The center includes an alerting and coordination network composed of switches linked to network operating centers in the private sector and government. It also has a high-frequency system linked to 1,100 stations worldwide, including nearly 70 federal, state and local agencies.

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