Northcom beefs up emergency response

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, COLO. — The Northern Command has herded a range of players into its organizational structure and stockpiled communications equipment to better coordinate disaster relief operations. The effort builds on lessons learned from the 2005 response to Hurricane Katrina.

Established in October 2002, Northcom offers command-and-control support for DOD homeland defense efforts and coordinates defense support of civil authorities.

One of the toughest challenges is coordinating with the private sector
and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are not part of the military’s chain of command, said Bernd McConnell, Northcom’s director of interagency coordination.

Private-sector businesses and NGOs can sometimes respond more nimbly than the federal sector can, and the government should include them in plans before a disaster and in responses after a disaster, McConnell said. To accomplish that, Northcom’s organizational structure includes on-site representatives from 60 federal agencies and an NGO desk run by employees from Humanitarian International Services Group, an NGO which specializes in private-sector resource mobilization and management.

“When you really need a friend, it’s too late to make one,” he said.

Working closely with the private sector will help Northcom better focus resources in future disasters, McConnell said. In the response to Katrina, Wal-Mart delivered bottled water more quickly to some locations than federal agencies could, and closer coordination will ensure that companies and agencies do not duplicate efforts.

Adm. Timothy Keating, Northcom’s commander, said the new C2 — collaboration and communications — should be the foundation for disaster planning. The military usually refers to command and control as C2. Planners will strive in the future for unified efforts rather than a rigid, military-style command-and-control structure.

Northcom and the Homeland Security Department do not share a chain of
command, so adding the private sector and NGOs will be even more challenging, McConnell said. But all of those sectors have common interests in disaster planning and response. One of the lessons learned from Katrina, he said, “is that we all have to know what the other guys are up to.”

Rear Adm. Kendall Card, command-and-control director at Northcom, said human interaction within the interagency group is now the best way to share data among agencies. 

Including NGOs in the Northcom structure makes sense because they “are an integral part of the civic infrastructure and can bring a lot of local knowledge to bear” on disaster response, said Katrin Verclas, executive director of the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network , an association of NGO information technology professionals.

Northcom has bolstered its deployable communications systems to prepare for the next major disaster,  said Navy Capt. Greg Looney, chief of the Northcom command, control and communications operations division. Looney said Northcom, in partnership with the National Guard Bureau and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, bought 22 deployable cellular base stations, each housed in two transit cases, for use in areas where a disaster has destroyed the cellular infrastructure.

Northcom has also purchased 18 emergency response systems, each equipped with a 3.9-foot Ku-band satellite dish, which can communicate on Defense Department unclassified and secret networks, Looney said. The systems are housed in sport utility vehicles designed to support six to 10 employees.

Northcom chats about disasterFor the Northern Command, Internet chat technology is the primary means of communication within its command center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado and with Northcom’s federal agency partners, said Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Myers, the center’s director.

The center has 30 to 80 chat channels open at one time, including channels dedicated to specific agencies or events, Myers said. For example, the center has a dedicated chat channel with the Coast Guard and has set up special channels to use during specific events or missions.

As an information flow tool, chat channels are much faster than Defense Department message traffic and much quieter, too, Myers said.

In the midst of a ballistic missile exercise last week, the Northcom command center was quieter than a public library. The silence helps the center’s employees concentrate on the mission, Myers said.

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