Gustav response highlights Army's improvement in disaster communications

The service has turned to mobile command vehicles built from the ground up to coordinate better with first responders in the wake of Hurricane Gustav.

Alexandria, La. - Hoping to avoid the communications breakdown it experienced during Hurricane Katrina, the Army has turned to mobile command vehicles built from the ground up to coordinate with first responders in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav.

Comment on this article in The Forum.During Katrina, Defense Department units had difficulty communicating with state and local emergency workers because it did not have radio equipment that was interoperable with those that first responders used. The Army also needed to connect to classified and unclassified military networks, and all this capability had to be easy to transport.

So, the Army contracted with the Wolf Coach division for mobile command vehicles, the result of which are 33-foot trucks equipped with 2.6 meter satellite dishes. The vehicles include a system called Sentinel, which provides the Army North Operational Command Post here with 2 megabytes of connectivity per second through a commercial satellite connection provided by Segovia IP of Herndon, Va. The Army now operates 23 mobile command vehicles.

Sentinel also provides a suite of radios that communicate on all VHF and UHF radio frequencies that first responders use. It's also equipped with an analog bridge from the JPS Communications division of Raytheon Co. so it can connect with up to 24 disparate radio systems, according to Matt Hopper, an Army civilian telecommunications specialist deployed with the Army North Operational Command post.

The Sentinel system supports connectivity for 55 users connected to the Defense's unclassified network and another 30 users connected to the Defense classified network. The network also supports voice and data connections and video teleconferencing.

Because the bandwidth provided to the command post is less than the average high-speed Internet connection - and supports many more users - workers were instructed to practice "digital rules of engagement" on files they sent and received over the network. Hopper said text is the preferred medium of expression rather than PowerPoint presentations, which take much longer to send.

The Sentinel system proved useful when Army North set up the command post in a hangar at an industrial park and local airport here, Hopper said. The buildings had three working telephone lines, which were not enough to support the organization's 120 people.

As the winds from Gustav picked up on Monday, Hopper had to shut down Sentinel and park it in a safe location. But Lt. Col. William Darby, the command sergeant at the command post, said they still were able to communicate by plugging one of its air cards from Verizon Wireless to access the Defense unclassified network at a speed of about 200 kilobits per second over a high-speed cellular network.

Army North has four Sentinel systems designed to support a command post like the one in Alexandria and 19 smaller units housed in SUVs that have satellite dishes that are less than 1 meter and support Defense coordinating officers who work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

While Col. Laverm Young, the coordinating officer deployed to Baton Rouge, praised the communications capabilities of the new vehicles, he said one addition was needed: a high-frequency radio system capable of communicating with amateur radio operators, who often have the only radios operating after a disaster.