When hurricanes pummeled the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf Coast late last summer, the response required a significant emergency effort from the U.S. military.
Whether supporting medical response, helping provide communications or coordinating partnerships across groups, the Army – as well as the Coast Guard – played a critical role. In particular, the Army was heavily involved in response and recovery efforts that followed Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and nearby islands in September.
As Hurricane Maria bore down on Puerto Rico and nearby Virgin Islands, the Army’s Defense-Wide Transmissions Systems office received notification that the National Guard needed support for their Combat Service Support Very Small Aperture Terminals. The CSS VSATs provided a primary means of satellite communications for the first 72 hours after the storm, said Lt. Col. Gus Muller, the DWTS product lead.
“We didn’t know what the severity of the impact would be, so really it was wait-and-see. We knew that any of the military facilities on the island should be strong enough to withstand the hurricane, but what would be the impact to roads, communications lines, medical services? Would all lines of communication be cut? Those were all unknowns,” Muller said. “We didn’t know the severity until we got initial reports back that they were establishing communications with the CSS VSAT and they needed support.”
To better support comms on the island, Army leaders took an unprecedented step in enabling a CSS VSAT feature that hadn’t been used before: opening up ports on the terminal that allowed for landline phone calls, Muller said.
“That way they could make voice-over-IP calls to other sites, not just to CONUS but all over the island, to facilitate communications,” he said. “Typically the way the CSS VSAT is set up is it’s only to do direct communications with the network operations center, so that was waived to enable full communications in support of the disaster relief effort.”
CSS VSAT functions vary by the teams using them and at any given time there are 4,000 terminals around the world connected to the DWTS Communications Network. For example, for the Army Corps of Engineers, the systems are used often to communicate with headquarters for supply, program status updates and, in particular, medical data transfers – digital X-rays or even live video consults and other telemedical services, which was crucial following the hurricane.
“The DWTS capability and support from the program office enabled 14th [Combat Support Hospital] to provide medical care for over 1,600 patients, test the Army’s tele-behavior-health-in-a-bag devices, validate the [Defense Information Systems Agency] Global Video System with a medical unit in southwest Asia and 1st [Medical Brigade] at Ft. Hood, and enabled the Mobile Medic program to both validate capabilities and treat real-world patients in an expeditionary fashion under austere conditions,” said Capt. Tom Mooney, 44th Medical Brigade NETOPS officer.
On-the-ground comms: a critical building block
Before the ad hoc networks, satcom capabilities and technological solutions can operate, it was critical to lay the groundwork ahead of time so those technologies would work, officials said.
“You have to remember it’s really a partnership. There’s a very prescribed process to ensure all aspects are coordinated,” said Greg Garcia, Army Corps of Engineers CIO. “We had meetings two times a day to sync at the headquarters level, had liaisons at every major organization, and that cross-talk and deconfliction is a persistent required capability. It’s not just the responders; a lot is up to the district, city, county, precinct or the territory that’s involved, and they have a voice in it and that’s important.”
In the case of putting the CSS VSATs to work in Puerto Rico, there was significant coordination between the DWTS program offices and the Rock Island Integrated Network Operations Center. That included daily notifications and updates of critical requirements and the status of support happening in the islands, Muller said.
After Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the Texas coast with days of relentless rain and catastrophic flooding, the 911 emergency infrastructure and Coast Guard phone lines were completely overwhelmed. As a solution, the Coast Guard rerouted phone lines to a large command center located at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, where rescue calls were answered, said Cmdr. Valerie Boyd, Coast Guard liaison officer to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“It was a unique and innovative solution to that problem,” Boyd said. “Every response is different, and the demands are different. It was a major search and rescue event for Harvey. For Maria it was significant communications issues including our infrastructure for Rescue 21, which is how we monitor international distress for maritime, being completely down. We put Coast Guard cutters all over [the Caribbean] in order to maintain that capability and ensure we were available to complete our statutory missions.”
In these cases the existing infrastructure was overrun by the severity of the storms, but that doesn’t make it any less important to have the infrastructure in place, particularly keeping that in mind when rebuilding after the storm, officials said.
“The tip of the day is that we have to have infrastructure that works before all this. If you have a local governance process that doesn’t have contingency planning activities under way, and we fall in on top of that to help, it gets difficult,” Garcia said.