Coping With Crisis Communications

April 2003
By James Stiefvater

Increased threat brings information exchange capability to forefront.

Rapidly deployable, reliable and secure communications are helping sort through the inherent communications chaos surrounding emergency situations. The technology was instrumental in providing communications capabilities after the terrorist attacks and also was useful in debris recovery operations after the space shuttle Columbia disaster.

Current homeland security efforts call for cooperation and collaboration among various emergency response organizations from all levels of government. These groups assess a crisis situation then help coordinate an effective response. However, they face the challenge of communicating with each other using different types of equipment.

To address this issue, the Special Communications Requirements (SCR) division of the Naval Air Systems Command, St. Inigoes, Maryland, designed and fabricated the unified command suite (UCS) for the National Guard’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams (WMD-CST). The division also supports the technology, which was developed for the National Guard Bureau with assistance from Wolf Coach Incorporated, BAE Systems PLC, C-Cubed Corporation and Titan Corporation.

The CST’s primary mission is to assist civil authorities at domestic chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosive events by identifying agents or substances, assessing current and projected consequences, advising on response measures and assisting with requests for state and national support. CST units provide first responders with critical and near-immediate assistance after an attack, while other federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency provide long-term assistance.

Each CST unit consists of 22 specially trained National Guard personnel, eight uniquely configured vehicles, specialized communications, and the analysis and protective gear necessary to support the mission. The use of National Guard personnel, under the direct control of state authorities, effectively eliminates problems with the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits federal military personnel from being used for law enforcement activities within the United States. Local agreements between states allow CST units to cross state lines in emergency situations.

The WMD-CSTs are unique because of their federal-state relationship. They are federally funded and evaluated and they are trained and operate under federal doctrine, but each performs its mission primarily under the command and control of the governor of the state in which it is located. CSTs, unlike other specialized force protection military WMD units such as Army Technical Escort Units and the Marine Corps Chemical and Biological Incident Response Force, are state assets.

Congress has funded a total of 32 CSTs, 30 of which currently are certified. The teams are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and are located throughout the nation with a goal that 90 percent of the nation’s population be located within 250 miles, or four hours, of at least one team. CST equipment also is designed to allow airlift by aircraft like the C-130 or larger if required.

The UCS was designed, tested and fabricated employing knowledge and experience gained by the SCR division from the development of numerous transportable military communications systems, including White House communications vans, special forces equipment and joint base stations. This input, coupled with suggestions from CST operators, optimized system utility from both a capability and human standpoint. The basic system consists of a hybrid of militarized and commercial communications components designed to maximize transportation, operational and support capabilities while minimizing space, weight and cost.

Major CST components include the mobile analytical laboratory system (MALS) and UCS vehicles. The MALS allows rapid on-site analysis of chemical, biological or nuclear contaminants, whereas the UCS provides a unit local, state and national communications capability. The full CST unit and its equipment are designed to be self-sustaining for up to 72 hours.

After rapid set-up on-site—usually within less than an hour—the self-powered compact three-operator UCS communications system provides the team with access to four satellite links, including ultrahigh frequency (UHF) satellite communications (SATCOM), international maritime satellite (INMARSAT), commercial Ku-band and Iridium low-earth-orbiting satellite telephones. In addition, access is available to high frequency, very high frequency (VHF), UHF and 800-megahertz communications capabilities such as those used by local fire and police departments.

Other built-in features include CST intercommunications, secure and standard telephones, and nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNET) and secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) connectivity. A cross-patching capability allows users with different systems such as officials from various jurisdictions to communicate directly and to transmit real-time video from members of the CST unit at the incident site to higher authorities.

Major components of the integrated UCS include a GMC-6500 low-profile chassis with a 210 horsepower diesel engine, custom body enclosure, built-in 15 kilowatt diesel generator and 28-volt direct current  (DC) alternator, 28 voltage DC battery bank, dual environmental control units and dual operator consoles.

Two Harris PRC-117F transceivers and one AN/VRC-103 provide AM/FM SATCOM demand assigned multiple access, voice/data and Havequick/single channel ground to air radio system capabilities. These units allow Type 1 security in the 30-megahertz to 512-megahertz band while providing interoperability with various military units.

A secure high frequency long haul Motorola MICOM 2R unit enables 2-megahertz to 30-megahertz single-side-band voice and data. This system allows over-the-horizon communications with state emergency management and other military units.

An INMARSAT M4 with high-speed data provides satellite digital voice/data, Internet service provider via integrated services digital network Web access and an order wire connection until higher bandwidth circuits can be established.

The suite also features two Motorola Astro Consolette base stations and five tactical digital intercom system (TDIS) remote-control stations. The base stations provide a 50-watt VHF/UHF, data-encryption-standard secure communications capability for intra-team and emergency management operations that is compliant with Association of Public Safety Communications Officials standards. The TDIS units provide eight radio connections to five remote consoles, a global/private intercom and a cross-band repeating capability.

A transportable Global Systems Technologies 2.4-meter Ku-band fly-away commercial satellite antenna and associated electronics and security equipment include a 16-port multiplexer to provide both secure and nonsecure networking capabilities. The large dish may be disassembled and stored in the van during transport and is designed to be operated at a distance from the van to allow communications in an urban canyon environment. National communications are supported through a secure satellite capability operated by the 1110th Signal Battalion, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Eight VHF/UHF Motorola XTS-3000 VHF/UHF/800-megahertz handheld transceivers enable a secure internal and external communications capability.

The SCR division designed, developed, tested and delivered the initial CST vehicle in approximately 12 months. The remaining CST systems all have been delivered on time and within budget despite a very aggressive production schedule. Seventeen systems were fielded five months after the terrorist attacks.

UCS operator training and specialized instruction are provided at the SCR division facility as part of the team’s certification process. The SCR group also provides ongoing technical support and assistance directly to user facilities across the nation.

WMD-CST units and the UCS system have demonstrated outstanding performance in crisis environments. The 2nd WMD-CST unit based in Scotia, New York, was deployed to ground zero at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Because of the level of destruction and the loss of normal communications connectivity, the UCS provided a primary on-site local and national communications capability during the critical first 24 hours after the disaster.

Contingency communications support was provided to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) on-scene commander, whose communications capability had been damaged as a result of the attack. The CST’s UCS enabled the FBI to transmit the first on-scene images of the attack to the FBI’s Strategic Information Operations Center in Washington, D.C. The National Guard’s official lessons-learned report indicates that the UCS is the most important piece of equipment on the team, offering “no-fail” communications for incident and/or on-scene commanders until their own communications connectivity is established.

The suite has assisted in other emergency situations as well. During severe West Virginia flooding in July 2001, the West Virginia National Guard requested additional communications support. The UCS from the 41st WMD-CST based in Kentucky was dispatched to provide assistance. In addition, CST units were successfully deployed in more than 50 anthrax investigations, and five CST units were deployed across the southwestern United States to assist operations to recover debris from the space shuttle Columbia disaster.

Congress is considering the authorization of an additional 23 WMD-CST units. A block upgrade for all current systems to enhance system utility also is in process.

Gen. William F. Kernan, USA, combatant commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command, Norfolk, Virginia, says the CSTs are eyes and ears across the nation, providing the “ground truth” for incident commanders, emergency managers and military officials and bridging the seams in the nation’s response.


James Stiefvater is a branch director in the Special Communications Requirements Division and the program manager for the Unified Command Suite program, Avionics Department, Naval Air Systems Command, St. Inigoes, Maryland.

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