Emergency Agency to Use Military Data Networks

July 2002
By Henry S. Kenyon

Secure communications offers flexibility, information sharing.

Civilian disaster response personnel soon will employ secure electronic messaging to communicate with U.S. government agencies and military services. The mobile system enables emergency management personnel to contact and coordinate operations quickly with other federal entities in the event of an emergency or terrorist attack.

Achieving interoperability is not an endeavor restricted to the U.S. Defense Department; it drives procurement and development across the U.S. government. Although most agencies can communicate at nonsecure levels easily, homeland defense and other preparedness issues create a need for clear, confidential contacts among organizations.

As the lead civilian disaster response organization, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) often interacts with other government entities during the course of its operations. To enhance its flexibility during these events, the agency will deploy a mobile communications system that will permit its personnel to access the secure defense message system (DMS) and the secure Internet protocol routing network (SIPRNET).

According to Eric Hainzer, a telecommunications specialist with FEMA’s mobile operations branch, Washington, D.C., the agency’s goal is to deploy a mobile DMS-based message center that can be vehicle-mounted or deployed in transit cases. The system will be used in FEMA disaster field offices (DFOs) and communication centers. He notes that the equipment is currently in a post-development stage and has been certified and accredited by the Defense Department for use on the SIPRNET and DMS.

FEMA personnel will use laptop computers to dial into the DMS. Hainzer maintains that access to the equipment will be strictly enforced and restricted. For example, in a large-scale DFO of 400 to 500 people, only three to five terminals would be dedicated to DMS and SIPRNET access, and they would be placed in a secure part of the facility, he says.

Secure communications links such as DMS or SIPRNET offer direct contact with organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Additionally, they permit quick connectivity with emergency joint task force civil support efforts or new entities such as the U.S. Northern Command. “Let’s say there is an Army unit attached to us [FEMA], and that we need to be able to send e-mail from civilian agencies to this Defense Department entity. This would allow us to do that and also to go interagency,” Hainzer explains.

The system permits secure and nonsecure video, secure data and secure voice communications. Hainzer credits creation of this capability to the efforts of national-level joint task forces and user interoperability exercises conducted by the Defense Department. “Personally, I find it fascinating that a civilian agency such as FEMA is able to enter into a data network architecture on a secure level,” he observes.

Because SIPRNET access allows users to visit restricted Web pages and send reports and data, it presents a tremendous capability for a deployed unit, Hainzer contends. While secure network access is easy from a military installation, achieving connectivity from a civilian truck at the scene of a terrorist attack is another matter, he explains. The new system permits FEMA to deploy and operate command, control and communications functions from a civilian location.

The technology also complements FEMA’s extensive mobile communications network. Hainzer maintains that the agency has some of the best communications in the world for disaster support. Besides its network backbone, FEMA operates mobile radio vans, an always-on satellite channel and a fleet of five satellite trucks. These trucks and other agency emergency operations vehicles can deploy anywhere in the continental United States within six hours of a disaster alert. The vehicles also can be airlifted via military transport aircraft to U.S. territories such as the Virgin Islands, Guam or Puerto Rico.

Although FEMA has a formidable communications capability, it lacked a degree of interoperability with military headquarters for joint disaster relief operations, Hainzer says. The DMS/SIPRNET capability augments existing systems such as voice over Internet protocol, wireless communications, wireless local area networks, wireless telephones and an extensive high frequency radio system. Additionally, all these systems interoperate on FEMA’s own information technology standard. Hainzer explains that what makes the DMS application unique is that it conforms to both FEMA and Defense Department standards. “It’s able to meet those two standards in a deployed environment,” he says.

The system also is made entirely of commercial components. The Defense Department has an approved vendor list for equipment. FEMA cross-checked those suppliers against its own information technology approval list to make sure that both organizations could be supported. Because of this coordination, Hainzer is sanguine about the prospects for maintaining a standardized system.

The civilian DMS application also enhances interagency communications. This is important because currently there are no good lines of secure horizontal communication among agencies, Hainzer explains. While interoperability with communications systems such as radios, telephones and cellular telephones is important, the ability to share information securely is critical. “If you can’t send an attachment, a picture or a report—if you can’t send your routine information—then it makes coordinating all those efforts more difficult,” he explains. The ability to virtually post current status information on a secure Web page adds a great deal of flexibility to what a unit can achieve, he maintains.

Because the Defense Department’s role in domestic counterterrorism activities is limited by law, questions remain about who will provide communications services to U.S. emergency responders during a disaster or a homeland security situation, Hainzer says. Although new entities such as the Northern Command and the Office of Homeland Security have this authority, their responsibilities and overall operating strategies have not been fleshed out. FEMA is in a position, through its communication capability, to support organizations in an emergency. “Everybody thinks that there are some serious gaps. But I think that as we develop these systems and become interoperable with each other, the confusion level will diminish,” Hainzer speculates.

The interest in DMS technology grew out of work conducted with the U.S. Army Reserve. Hainzer, who is a major with the U.S. Army Reserve’s 5115th Garrison Support Unit, Fort Meade, Maryland, notes that beginning in 1998, his unit participated in a number of exercises such as the joint user interface communications exercise, the Joint Interoperability Test Command’s exercises, and grecian firebolt. During the exercises, his unit operated a number of deployable applications to access secure networks. As a result, Hainzer decided to examine the possibility of using this equipment for civilian emergency response capabilities.

Because much of the Army Reserve’s equipment is based directly on commercial technologies that easily can be acquired by a civilian agency, the exercises actually served as prototypes for the FEMA system, Hainzer says. The messaging application did not emerge through a top-down effort, but rather through the work of noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and civil servants who took the initiative and pooled their expertise. “There wasn’t a lot of money or contractors thrown at it. It was the NCO-level people working out the details and coming up with various proofs of concept,” he says.

Hainzer hopes that in the next three to five years FEMA will be able to establish an interagency equipment and vendor standard for homeland security technologies. He notes that the DMS-based messaging system will not only provide a no-notice, immediate capability that can be deployed, set up and operated but also one that is interoperable with the entire homeland security community. “It would be something if the [U.S.] Department of Transportation, the FBI, or Health and Human Services decided that they needed it [DMS interoperability]. They could look to FEMA as the standard in which these things need to be melded so they are all interoperable,” he speculates.

By August, Hainzer hopes to have the system ready for deployment in a transit-case-based system. The next step will be to integrate the system into a comprehensive vehicle package. He expects this stage to last six to nine months and end with four or five DMS/SIPRNET-capable FEMA detachments being fielded. “What we have done so far is use second-hand or turned-in workstations to do proof-of-concept and testing,” he says. Additional work centered on accreditation, certification, commissioning, issuing passwords, creating accounts and installing intrusion detection software is complete.

The goal now is to develop a system whereby FEMA can deploy the equipment in a programmed manner, Hainzer explains. “That’s basically the layout. What we’re trying to get to is a system we can deploy when needed. We’ve gone through the commissioning and testing phase, but we are still in the process of getting the dollars and, if we can get the resources, to make this a regular system in the inventory,” he says.