Hurricane Ida made landfall around 12:00 on 29 August – the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – near Port Fourchon, Los Angeles. As a Category-4 storm, Ida struck with sustained winds of 150mph, making it one of the most life-threatening storms to surge along Los Angeles, Michigan, and Alabama, before churning inland and upward throughout the Northeastern US. Ida caused historic and devastating flash flooding and threats to public health, safety, and infrastructure.
The multiple federal and state agencies dependent on communications during disasters do so through the critical infrastructure (CI). It is a complex and interconnected system, and its secure functionality is relied upon when events such as Hurricane Ida’s wrath strike and risk loss of electricity, transportation, water, healthcare and communications.
Those who activate such communications are the soldiers and airmen assigned to the National Guard Bureau who co-ordinated Hurricane Ida response efforts from the National Guard Coordination Center in Arlington, VA, including those within the New Jersey Army National Guard (NJARNG) who ensured the transfer of communications and technology to essential resources and assets. One CI system utilized within the NJARNG during Ida is the Emergency Management Mapping and Information Tracking (EMMIT).
“When the New Jersey National Guard receives a request for support from a civilian agency, the primary means of contact is a web-based application,” explained US Army Major Justin Moore, Operations Officer of the NJARNG Joint Operations Center. “We’re also on the phone with the Trenton-based Regional Operation Intelligence Center, which facilitates backup power generators. In the event of a total blackout, we send a ‘runner’ to relay messages. Fortunately, it hasn’t gotten to that point.
“We can communicate with our airframes over UHF and VHF, which can also speak on the same band as the New Jersey State Police.”
SHOUT it out
According to Colonel Frank Montgomery, Director of Military Support, Pennsylvania National Guard, federal and state agencies have multiple sources of communications options during disaster events at the severity of Hurricane Ida: “The Pennsylvania National Guard has several methods of communication available in the event of an unanticipated disaster to include phone, email, statewide radio, and even other methods such as high-frequency and some other satellite-based platforms such as ‘nano-shouts’.”
The ‘nano-shout’ – slang for NAL Research’s SHOUT Nano – is a handheld global, two-way satellite messaging and personal tracking device that provides location information determined by a GPS receiver, two-way inbound and outbound status, text messaging, and emergency and alert notifications. The SHOUT Nano has an internal rechargeable Li-Ion battery, a high-resolution LCD screen, a 011 alert button for emergency situations, and is small enough for easy concealment.
Redundancy during a crisis can also be a powerful strategy knowing oftentimes that information is not received or misunderstood, notably when communicating with multiple sources throughout the region. Montgomery stated: “We have redundant power sources throughout the commonwealth at our facilities and we also work with our commercial partners to ensure we have priority access to cellular phone and email as part of the first responder team.”
State resources include the State-branch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) such as the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA). Montgomery continued: “We co-ordinate and exercise these communications plans with the PEMA throughout the year, not just during emergencies.”
Futureproofing communications technology
As in all technology, improvements and advancements in communications are an ever-present need. But the reality with disaster communications is in sourcing the right options that align with the operator’s budget. “The Pennsylvania National Guard is currently fielding new radios that afford state-wide coverage and complete inter-agency connectivity,” explained Montgomery. “These new radios will replace older model 800mhz and will allow our personnel the ability to reach out to all of our interagency partners, with some prior co-ordination regarding frequencies. We also use other internet-based communication methods to ensure we are sending and receiving the latest information to our inter-agency counterparts.”
Montgomery added that the Pennsylvania National Guard ‘also has several satellite platforms that provide connectivity that are commercial and tailored for domestic operations, in addition to tactical communications that aren’t used very frequently during domestic operations’.
Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Lieutenant Colonel Randy Lutz, Commander of the Eastern Army National Guard Aviation Training Site, shared how his region utilizes communications assets through natural disasters like Ida: “The federal and state agencies employ a PACE plan (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency) communications plan to support effective communication during federal and state domestic operations and contingency operations. Advances in technology deliver adaptive capabilities, access to interact with emergency management dashboards for situational awareness, planning, use of digital and over the horizon communications, and asset tracking.”
With respect to future communications systems needed, Lutz said, “The federal and state agencies integrate a variety of communications platforms and diverse capabilities, including analog, digital, encrypted, employed via network, ground, air and geospatial means to manage disaster and emergency response.”