Coast Guard Communications Weather the Storm

December 2005
By Maryann Lawlor
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The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Decisive docks at a port in Gulfport, Mississippi, and serves as a command, control and communications platform for the Mississippi Coastal Recovery Base Gulfport. The base provides assistance to local law enforcement agencies as well as search and rescue capabilities and humanitarian aid.
Hurricanes prove no match for the well-organized service.

Preparation, determination and delegation were the U.S. Coast Guard’s unstoppable trilogy to keep the lines of communication open as the powerful winds of hurricanes Katrina and Rita blew into the Gulf Coast. The Coast Guard’s primary communications unit for the entire region was directly in the path of the first storm, but the organization was able to remain connected with its personnel and was operational within hours. The unprecedented feat was accomplished in large part with the help of the commercial sector, Coast Guard auxiliarists, and site survey and repair teams from multiple locations.

As with the U.S. military’s unified combatant commands, the Coast Guard is organized into geographic areas of responsibility. Personnel assigned to each of nine districts are responsible for the operations that occur in their region. The 8th District, headquartered in New Orleans, is in charge of operations in 26 states that stretch from the Appalachian Mountains and Chattahoochee River to the Rocky Mountains and from the U.S.-Mexico border and the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Board in North Dakota. But when tragedy strikes in any of the regions, the other districts go into action to assist.

Two Electronic Systems Support Units (ESUs), one in New Orleans and the other in St. Louis, provide the electronics and telecommunication systems for District 8. This includes all of the computers, radios, radar, electronic sensors, and command and control systems. The units are part of the Coast Guard’s Maintenance and Logistics Command, Atlantic, located in Norfolk, Virginia. Five Electronic Support Detachments (ESDs) report to ESU New Orleans.

According to Cmdr. Michael J. Johnston, USCG, commanding officer, ESU New Orleans, this structure was one of the reasons Coast Guard personnel not only could remain connected during Hurricane Katrina but also could complete their primary mission of search and rescue so quickly in the aftermath. “There are no stovepiped communications; all the communications are centralized. How we communicate and the technology and the equipment that we use are standardized so it’s easily replaced. It’s easy to have someone else from another unit come in and use the same equipment because it’s standardized throughout the service. So we’re naturally set up to manage a down unit because of that consistency,” Cmdr. Johnston relates.

As part of the preparation, ESU set up a server with critical data in St. Louis so that a command post could be established there. Core members of the District 8 staff flew to St. Louis the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. In addition, sectors that report to the command post were moved to areas near the expected disaster zone yet far enough to be out of the path of the hurricane, Cmdr. Johnston explains. The New Orleans sector moved to Alexandria, Louisiana.

Also as part of the preparations, communications trailers, which are part of the current National Distress System, were positioned closer to the Louisiana and Mississippi area. These trailers include standard communications equipment found in a command center such as high frequency and very high frequency radios, satellite telephones and connectivity to the U.S. Defense Department’s secret Internet protocol router network. In response to emergencies, this equipment, all of which can be transported in a C-130, is brought into the area where the temporary command center will be set up and enables Coast Guard personnel to communicate with fixed and rotary wing aircraft as well as reinforcement personnel, the commander explains.

Additional response preparations include positioning Incident Management Assist Teams (IMATs) that form the Incident Command System (ICS) structure. The ICS comprises individual cells to provide planning, personnel and communications. “The IMATs come fully loaded with cell phones and satellite phones and laptops and wireless laptops and wireless printers and so on. Before the hurricane hit, they formed up at a safe location, and then we joined them with all our support and structure the day after,”  Col. Johnston explains.

The decision about which personnel will be part of the IMAT is based on the skills that will be required to respond to a specific type of emergency. In some cases, although personnel in the affected area possess these skills, experts from other areas of the country are sent to the region so that resident Coast Guardsmen can handle personal emergencies.

Approximately 140 technicians, specialists and support personnel regularly work for the core ESU; after Hurricane Katrina hit, 19 people had to be brought in from other locations to assist in the unit, but more than 1,000 people were brought in to support the effort, the commander says.

Realizing that Hurricane Katrina was headed straight for New Orleans, the hub of Coast Guard communications in the area, the service expanded preparations even further. After all the emergency communications equipment was in position, Internet e-mail accounts and telephone conference bridges were put into place so Coast Guard personnel could call in and relay status reports from virtually anywhere, Cmdr. Johnston relates. “We distributed different cell phones and text pagers, and the Nextels worked extraordinarily well. Text messaging was also one of those capabilities that we realized worked even when cell phones didn’t. We had all of that ready to go,” he explains.

Another ESU asset that supported communications was the Tachyon satellite system. The system provides a T-1 service connection directly to the Internet and the Coast Guard’s intranet, called the Coast Guard Data Network (CGDN). The CGDN is accessible through the Internet using a password and token, and it provides Coast Guard personnel with access to service-specific applications and data. Personnel can view their own desktops from remote locations using Microsoft Remote Desktop.

Members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary help staff the Hurricane Katrina response center in St. Louis. Staff members from New Orleans flew to St. Louis to set up a command post the day before the hurricane made landfall.
After the evacuation, personnel used the telephone bridge to call in daily and report on their status. With this information, the ESU knew who had to deal with family issues and who was available to report for duty. Based on this census, the unit sent a request for additional personnel to the Maintenance and Logistics Command, Atlantic. Cmdr. Johnston says the process transpired very smoothly.

The commander relates that after Hurricane Katrina hit, the Coast Guard network no longer existed in its previous state. “All of the little stations and Aid to Navigation units that do all the buoys and stations and the sectors at least in the New Orleans area of responsibility were down. They lost communications. Not only them but Houston, Corpus Christi, Mobile, all of them were tied to New Orleans, so all of them lost communications,” he says.

“But we did have the Nextels; we did have e-mail from the Internet and personal accounts that we had already set up; and it wasn’t long before we were networked. I’d say it was hours after the hurricane that the IMAT was working here. And we had other units working for us. ESD Corpus Christi would log in remotely and set up the standard network accounts. They were able to use broadband from the hotel with a token to access this Coast Guard network and set up accounts for themselves. They could get Coast Guard message traffic and do their situation reports and use some of the applications they use for search and rescue and command and control down throughout the Coast Guard units,” Cmdr. Johnston explains.

In addition to the ESDs, the Coast Guard’s diverse assets came into play. Coast Guard ships with built-in command and control systems were all   pre-staged just outside the hurricane area prior to the storm. These ships followed Hurricane Katrina into the area and provided communications, personnel and logistics support using high frequency and very high frequency transmissions.

But the Coast Guard could not have reconnected without the help of industry, Cmdr. Johnston allows. The service’s infrastructure is built around commercial telecommunications systems such as MCI, Bell South and SBC, and the fates favored the Coast Guard in this instance. Shortly before Hurricane Katrina appeared on the horizon as a threat, the ESU had briefed the companies in what the commander calls Coast Guard 101. “We showed them what we did and why we put priority on certain circuits, certain telecommunications lines. It was a real eye-opener for them, and they became very responsive right after the hurricane,” he says.

One example of their responsiveness involved communications high sites, which are the locations of high frequency and very high frequency antennas that are strategically placed throughout the area of responsibility. “I can’t say enough about how quickly they [the contractors] understood what it meant when we said, ‘This high site is down,’ and they were on it. We’re talking turnaround in hours for installing T-1 lines—which you may know normally takes much longer—multiprotocol label switching circuits and lines out to the high sites,” Cmdr. Johnston states.

The commander estimates that communications for the CGDN were restored within two days in large part because of the coordination between the Coast Guard and industry. “I can’t say enough about the way that the Coast Guard organization worked. We delegate authority to people who know what their jobs are, and we trust those guys to go out there and do it. They don’t need a lot of task direction,” he states.

“I think the greatest surprise was how truly responsive the telecommunications contractors that we normally work with for repair were. They were part of the Coast Guard team, and they were just as involved and just as able to understand that lives hang in the balance and they were there. That was extraordinary. A key part to that and the reason we had previously had them out to give them the Coast Guard 101 was the lessons that we learned after 9/11: Know who to call and know how to engage them in a manner to get that type of response. We knew all the right people. We knew their personal cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and we were text messaging the head of our contractors for MCI to say, ‘Here’s what we need; here are the priorities,’ and they were right back with us,” Cmdr. Johnston relates.

The entire Coast Guard as well as other organizations were just as responsive, the commander adds. The Maintenance and Logistics Command, which is in charge of telecommunications coordination, and the U.S. Joint Forces Command, Norfolk, Virginia, which handles support programs, contributed to the effort. The Coast Guard’s Electronics Logistics Command in Baltimore shipped hundreds of computers to the Gulf region. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., quickly addressed policy issues that allowed access to chat rooms. “All of those people responded and were online 24-hours-a-day when they normally have regular work days. They were ready to respond. The whole organization really came up and still is supporting the units that need it,” he says.

Despite successfully sustaining communications, Cmdr. Johnston admits that some lessons were learned. For example, very high frequency communications can be used by many people, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. Those networks became crowded very quickly with personnel communicating from helicopters, ships and land bases. “We tried to institute some circuit discipline, but that just takes time. And depending on the emergency, we’d switch to alternate communications—satellite phones and text messaging. However I needed to get the message out, I’d do, but the primary was very high frequency,” he explains.

When Hurricane Rita hit the region less than a month after Hurricane Katrina, the Coast Guard was ready. Personnel were in place, so the operational aspects of dealing with its effects were well-organized. With the exception of communications towers that were destroyed, units were able to connect within hours after Hurricane Rita passed, the  commander relates.

Although technology, extraordinary preparation and creative workarounds helped the Coast Guard stay connected, Lt. Cmdr. Cornell I. Perry, USCG, ESU New Orleans’ executive officer, emphasizes that Coast Guard personnel deserve the real credit. “As the executive officer, one of my duties is the well-being of the crew. I was truly amazed at the work that these guys did after losing everything. They still saved people and got this AOR [area of responsibility] back up. It’s truly remarkable to see people with wives and children who have lost everything still ready to come back to work every day,” he states.

As for the ESU New Orleans facility, Cmdr. Johnston says it is a total loss and unit personnel will not be returning there. Although 60 percent of the ESU personnel who live and work in New Orleans lost everything, everyone got out of the area safely, he notes.


Web Resources
Eighth District, U.S. Coast Guard:
Maintenance and Logistics Command, Atlantic:
U.S. Coast Guard:


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