Army tests satellite communications in wildfire response

Using new high-tech emergency response vehicles for the first time, Air Force Gen. Victor Renuart, commander of the Pentagon's Northern Command, conducted a secure video conference Wednesday morning with Army officers who are coordinating the Defense Department's response to the California wildfires.

Army North, the Army component of Northcom, last year purchased 10 SUV emergency response vehicles that are equipped with a wide range of communications systems for defense coordinating officers, who are colocated with Federal Emergency Management Agency regional headquarters nationwide, said Col. Jane Crichton, public affairs officer for Army North.

The Army ordered the SUVs after communications problems made it difficult to coordinate Defense's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Crichton said. Each vehicle is equipped with a KU-band satellite system that allows the coordinating officers to quickly hook into Defense's secure and non-classified Internet Protocol data networks and secure and nonsecret video teleconferencing networks.

Tuesday, Army North dispatched a communications vehicle along with Defense Coordinating Officer Col. Mark Armstrong to the FEMA Joint Field Office in Pasadena, Calif., and another to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, in support of Defense Coordinating Officer Col. Gary Stanley, Crichton said. These vehicles made it easier for Renuart to conduct his conference with the two coordinating officers rather than relying on commercial circuits, which were inoperable in the wake of Katrina, Crichton said.

The vehicle can provide data connectivity for 10 to 20 users and comes with radio equipment that can form a network with systems used by state and local first responders, according to an Army North fact sheet.

Crichton said Army North also is deploying to Pasadena a command assessment element headed by Maj. Gen. Tom Matthews. It will be supported by an operational command post based on a truck-mounted communication system, which can support between 40 and 60 end users. It has its own cellular base station and deployable antenna mast.

Army North completed on Oct. 18 its first large-scale exercise using communications vehicles and the command assessment. The command's chief of operations, Col. Jim Kennedy, said the command gained valuable practice by testing its techniques with civilian partners in the United States and Guam. Now the command -- and its new equipment -- are being tested by the first real-world "Big One" since Katrina, Crichton said.

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