Military Systems Restore Communications To Devastated Region

December 2005
By Henry S. Kenyon

 
The team sent by the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Life Cycle Management Command (C-E LCMC), Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to support disaster relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina came equipped with several satellite communications transportable terminals (STTs). Highly automated, STTs can acquire a communications satellite automatically and can support a variety of wireless telephones and laptop computers.
Mobile satellite links connect local governments, first responders to emergency management groups.

After the winds of Hurricane Katrina subsided, the U.S. government launched a massive rescue and recovery effort in the devastated parishes and counties of Louisiana and Mississippi. The U.S. Defense Department played a major part in these operations, providing troops for law enforcement as well as supplies and equipment to aid beleaguered state and local governments. A key part of the military’s mission was restoring communications to first responders across the region.

Because the storm had devastated the local infrastructure completely in the hardest hit regions, the military shipped mobile satellite communications terminals to the GulfCoast to provide connectivity. One example of these efforts was the mission of a team of personnel from the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Life Cycle Management Command (C-E LCMC), Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

The team arrived at the LouisArmstrongNew OrleansInternationalAirport on September 10 with orders to establish backup communications to restore cell phone services lost due to flooding. According to Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Kobsar, USA, team leader of the C-E LCMC Special Projects and Homeland Security Office, while many cell phone antenna towers in the New Orleans area were undamaged, the extensive flooding disabled the infrastructure connecting the antennas to the public switch telephone networks.

Equipped with five satellite communications transportable terminals (STTs), the C-E LCMC team enabled soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Louisiana state and city relief workers to communicate via their personal cell phones. The STT is the transportable satellite communications part of the Defense Department’s new Joint Network Node (SIGNAL, September 2005, page 65) designed to support communications for echelons below battalion and brigade levels. The STTs initially provided Internet access and feeds for 20 voice over Internet protocol telephones. This capability then was increased to approximately 100 telephones with the added ability to interoperate with state and local first responders.

The STT equipment that supported the hurricane relief efforts is a new version that has not yet been issued to the military. Housed in a single trailer, it can accept connections directly from laptops and telephones. Highly automated, the STT’s dish antenna acquires a satellite immediately when the antenna is raised.

Chief Warrant Officer Kobsar praises the performance of the STTs in the field. The only difficulty encountered was rain fade during the hurricane, which was not the fault of the equipment but was due to the Ku band’s wavelength, he explains.

The C-E LCMC equipment served as a backup for the damaged infrastructure by “injecting” a satellite-based communications link from a cellular base tower into a public telephone network via a communications hub in Atlanta. The initial plan was to link the terminals to a government facility providing nonsecure Internet protocol router network and defense switched network lines, but jurisdictional issues separating military and civilian authorities prevented this. “We could not legally shoot back into military facilities to provide services to first responders,” he says.

The mission then shifted to provide six New Orleans area parishes with communications links. This time the FortMonmouth team linked to a commercial organization, Carlsbad, California-based ViaSat Incorporated. The arrangement allowed the C-E LCMC to provide local government organizations with Internet and public service telephone number services.

From its initial base in New Orleans, the team moved to Covington, Louisiana, on September 22. Recovery operations were complicated by the approach of Hurricane Rita, which made landfall along the Texas/Louisiana border September 23-24. The team was setting up its communications in Baton Rouge on the 23rd when it encountered rain fade.

Although Hurricane Rita disrupted operations, it also was the busiest time for the group. While the new storm delayed operations briefly, it did not damage any of the communications systems already put in place. The team pulled out of New Orleans and moved to St. Tammany Parish near Baton Rouge to wait out the second storm.

The weekend immediately following the second storm, five terminals were set up: two in Abbeville, Louisiana, on September 24, and three more in Oakdale, Cameron and Lake Charles on September 25. These communities were each provided with an STT, a Qualcomm Incorporated base hub and an ACU-1000, a device that allows any type of radio system to patch into the communications grid. The team also provided 100 code division multiple access (CDMA) cell phones and 20 wireless laptops linked to the CDMA system.

 
Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Kobsar, USA, uses an oscilloscope to verify the exact setting of a satellite downlink on a rooftop at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Operating in devastated areas with little or no infrastructure, the C-E LCMC team relied on pre-staged equipment and its members’ experience supporting military deployments.
The complete destruction and lack of infrastructure after Hurricane Katrina presented challenges for the FortMonmouth team. “Everything had to be self-sustaining. I couldn’t rely on any support whatsoever when I hit the ground,” the chief warrant officer says.

For example, in the town of Abbeville, local officials were using a single generator to power the municipal building. Additional generators were required to establish a communications network in the area. “Not only do you have to provide communications, but you have to provide power for the communications,” he says.

In Oakdale, Louisiana, the team found the fire chief using a generator to support the local communications system from the town’s firehouse. “What’s amazing is that he did a pretty good job of this all by himself,” Chief Warrant Officer Kobsar shares.

Oakdale’s fire chief was provided with a communications network covering 20 miles, wireless laptops and 20 wireless base-band time division multiple access packages. The system allowed different types of first responder radios to form networks across parish lines. “So it was no longer just to the one parish; they were tied into the state emergency operations center. Now you had a linked system from first responders to the Defense Department, all the way up to the state emergency operations center. Everybody was on one plane as far as communications was concerned,” he relates.

The base-band packages, CDMA bent pipes and ACU-1000s installed by the team will remain in the region. There is also a contract to provide a commercial satellite backhaul capability for the area. Once the commercial systems arrive, the STTs will be replaced, he explains.

To operate in these devastated zones, the FortMonmouth group pre-staged its operations and conducted dry-run exercises to put the equipment together. Although they did not have any direct disaster relief experience, C-E LCMC personnel already were well-versed in providing last-minute communications to military operations. Chief Warrant Officer Kobsar notes that team members have deployed to support operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

The team improvised while operating on the GulfCoast by integrating military and commercial equipment in the field. “We learned a lot about Cisco call managers interacting with both Defense Department and state-level communications equipment,” he offers.

Another lesson learned from the experience was the importance of ensuring that the communications team transmissions site is jointly operated by the federal government, state government, National Guard and FEMA. “It needs to be a joint center where all three or four groups can come together without issues,” he says.

C-E LCMC personnel also discovered that Ku-band satellite communications are affected by rain fade. As Hurricane Rita approached, the team encountered considerable rain fade when it deployed its STT dishes. The interference occurred because the Ku band’s wavelength is sensitive to atmospheric effects such as rain. “A single drop can affect your signal,” the chief warrant officer maintains.

Based on this experience, Chief Warrant Officer Kobsar does not believe Ku-band systems are suitable for hurricane relief. “There needs to be many different bands because if it’s raining real hard, you’re not going to get communications through,” he observes.

The C-E LCMC team is writing a report to present to the chief information officer/G-6, the U.S. Northern Command and FEMA about its experiences in Hurricane Katrina relief support efforts. The goal is to help develop a solution that will meet the government’s needs in any future catastrophic event, the chief warrant officer says.

 

Web Resource
U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Life Cycle Management Command: www.monmouth.army.mil/CELCMC