U.S. Army Tackles Nuclear Interoperability

February 2012
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Magazine
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A U.S. Coast Guard reservist patrols the Delaware River near the Salem Nuclear Power Plant in Salem, New Jersey. An effort underway at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, is designed to foster better data sharing between nuclear facilities and state agencies in case of an emergency.

A service facility works toward data sharing for homeland defense.

A little-known U.S. Army site at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, is developing software to resolve data sharing issues between the three New Jersey nuclear power facilities and the state’s data fusion center in West Trenton—information sharing that would be critical in case of a nuclear disaster. The nuclear power plants and the state’s data fusion hub use two different decision support systems that are incapable of sharing data.

“If right now, God forbid, there were a nuclear power station event—everybody’s got Fukushima on their minds—there’s no technology in place to share information with the state. And the state would have to notify the public, determine fallout, figure out how to evacuate, how to mobilize emergency responders,” warns Gene Olsen, branch chief, Joint, Virtual and Awareness Technologies branch, Homeland and Battlespace Transformation Systems directorate at Picatinny. In that case, he explains, someone at the plant would have to call the state, and the state employee would have to take notes and then pass along the information to all the agencies needed to coordinate a response.

But within the next year, Olsen and his team at Picatinny’s Homeland Defense Technology Center should have in place a piece of data-sharing middleware that will allow automatic updates between the nuclear plants and the state’s data fusion hub, which will keep everyone with a need to know in the know in case of emergency.

The software is known as the Unified Incident Command and Decision Support (UICDS) system, pronounced “you sids.” It acts as a data translator between systems not built to share information. UICDS was developed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology directorate to improve data sharing capabilities for the various local, state and federal agencies that will be required to respond to catastrophic events, whether natural or manmade. Olsen’s team is partnered with the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness on a UICDS pilot. “We’re actually helping to develop and work through the concepts of operations to use UICDS as that middleware data translator between the decision support systems used by the nuclear power stations and the data fusion center,” Olsen reports. “Information that both the power stations and the state agree to share automatically will be shared. If an event happens, and data is put into the system at the power station at 2 a.m. on a Sunday, that’s going to pop up on the decision support system at the state,” Olsen says. Then the state can use its system to disseminate the information to all the different response agencies, he explains.

That collaboration can continue during the entire emergency response for such tasks as alerts, incident reporting, follow-up reporting, mapping and visualization. “Sensors can automatically be populated from one system to another in near real time. If someone takes a picture on the ground, that picture can show up on other systems through the UICDS core. Incident commanders on the way to the scene can get updates in near real time as they mobilize and move their resources toward the incident,” Olsen explains. “We’re right in the middle of doing that right now. It’s an ongoing effort, and in the next year or so, it should be out of the pilot stage and actually be deployed.”

But that is only one project underway at the Homeland Defense Technology Center, which could be described as a do-it-all interoperability problem solver. The facility serves as a developmental battle lab providing warfighters and first responders with interoperable decision-support systems. The focus is on developing dual-use technologies. The center functions as a research and development facility to resolve data sharing issues at the local, state and federal levels. It also works as a multi-agency training hub, where emergency responders from various departments and agencies can train together either in the emergency operations center (EOC) or in the so-called 3500 area, a 100-acre boots-on-the-ground training site. The center fuses training and research and development so that as interoperability problems are identified, researchers can work solutions.

In addition, the Testbed Emergency Operations Center can be used to test systems without “getting in the knickers” of an agency’s networks, Olsen says. Or it can be used as a real-world command and control center in case of emergency. It is the designated operations center for Picatinny Arsenal, in case of an emergency, and even though he cannot go into details, Olsen reveals that Picatinny has agreements in place with a couple of agencies to act as a backup operations center if needed.

The center was used during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, to help keep local businesses informed of activities that might affect their operation. “We were giving different businesses out in the Denver area a heads-up if a demonstration started to get near them, or if a demonstration looked like it was starting to get violent or there was unrest, so that they could facilitate closing down early or locking up,” Olsen reports. Although no major security incidents occurred, the cutting-edge facility proved valuable in providing information from a distance.

The convention work resulted from a partnership with private industry. Picatinny’s Research, Development and Engineering Center has partnered with business and with the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) to foster information sharing between the public and private sectors. That partnership, the Business Emergency Operations Center Alliance, is now being touted as a national model for cooperation between the government and commercial sectors for homeland defense. “The private sector owns and operates the country’s critical infrastructure, so the federal government cannot respond to and recover from a disaster on its own. Government and the private sector have to cooperate. They have to share information pre-event, during an event and post-event. They have to work together to get the lights back on, to get services up and running, to get food and water, to assess property damage and to save lives.”

As part of the public-private sector alliance, Picatinny’s Homeland Defense Technology Center works closely with researchers at NJIT. The alliance participates in a variety of multi-agency homeland defense exercises, including the National Level Exercises and the Joint Users Interoperability Communications Exercises. They connect the various emergency operations hubs through a virtual workstation known as VirtuaLink, explains Mike Chumer, NJIT research professor. “VirtuaLink is a hybrid workstation that works on a virtual private network that allows us to communicate to the different EOCs. I can invite some of these EOCs into my incident or event using this technology, and as we communicate together, I can hear radio communication on their side, and they can hear radio communication on my side. Any streaming video on their side, I can see on my workstation; any streaming vehicle we may have over here, they can see.”

VirtuaLink was tested during the Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration this past June, allowing officials at the Picatinny and NJIT control centers to receive streaming video from warfighters in Afghanistan.

Interoperability barriers uncovered at the center do not always occur because of differences in technology. Legal, cultural, security and privacy issues also arise during multi-agency exercises. If a department or agency conducts its own training, it often will pretend other agencies or organizations are involved but still trains with the systems with which it has grown comfortable. “If there is interagency coordination, it’s always notional. They pretend they’ve got resources from the state. They pretend they’ve got National Guard in there or pretend they’ve got other Defense Department resources, and they work internally within their own organizations,” Olsen emphasizes. “We’re forcing the decision makers to see the complexities of information sharing environments. When you have operators at all levels come together in a research and development environment in facilities deliberately set up to support technology investigations for a multi-agency environment, that’s when the real magic happens.” 

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