Army looking to level communications

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have prompted the Army to think outside its normal parameters for systems — especially those focused on communications — that support military and civilian first responders in the event of a disaster.

Maj. Gen. William Bond, deputy for systems management in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, said the numerous lessons learned since Sept. 11 have resulted in an assortment of enhanced homeland security solutions ranging from stronger bullet-proof vests and gas masks, to improved chemical and biological detection systems.

But interoperable communications solutions that enable not only Defense Department services and agencies to share information, but also include state and local government officials, remain the ultimate goal, Bond said.

"The technology is there, and now we need to get the cost down," he told FCW following a panel today at the Homeland and Global Security Summit in Washington, D.C. He added that when first responders, such as local police and firefighters, arrive at the scene of an event, they must quickly decide if federal and military assistance is needed and then be able to communicate that decision on interoperable radios or other systems.

In addition to National Guard personnel, Northern Command likely would supply any DOD support to other government authorities in a homeland security event or natural disaster. Northcom is responsible for ensuring homeland defense capabilities and supporting civilian authorities when directed by the president or Defense secretary.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Lloyd Dodd, Northcom's chief surgeon, said the command will have about 600 people at its headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, Colo., when it achieves full operational capability Oct. 1. As of last week, the headquarters' staff included 258 people.

Northcom officials already are hard at work, Dodd said. Earlier this week, two baggage handlers at a Tampa, Fla., airport were taken to the hospital after unloading a suitcase that reeked of a strong odor, which left them lightheaded. The suitcase belonged to a traveler who had been in Southeast Asia.

Airport and local authorities performed a quick test for chemical agents, which came back positive for a nerve agent, and the area was quarantined until federal authorities arrived, Dodd said. Within one hour of the incident, Peter Verga, special assistant to the secretary of Defense for homeland security, was notified and 30 minutes later, Dodd said he was alerted and began planning responses to the event.

However, that planning ended up being unnecessary when more detailed testing revealed that there was no nerve agent present, and the odor had been caused by a large bottle of perfume that had ruptured during the flight. Dodd received a phone call one hour after his first notice — two and a half hours after the initial event — letting him know that the situation was under control.

Dodd said that because Northcom is still being assembled, he was not sure if any IT solutions, including secure e-mail or instant messaging, had been used to communicate the information up the chain of command. He noted, however, that he had used secure telephone lines to collaborate with his staff.

NEXT STORY: OMB pinched in program reviews

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