When Coms are Down (who you gonna call?)

EMScholar exercises 

This is part of a series about the largest disaster exercise conducted in Washington State history called Cascadia Rising, 2016. See the other blogs here.

As a Communication’s major, I was never really that interested in communication technologies (except for Twitter. Those case studies are super cool). Then, one day, I married an IT guy. Over the years, I’ve picked up enough geek-speak that when I passed by some funky looking antenna, I was a) curious and b) able to appear somewhat competent to the person explaining them to me. Here’s what I learned (stay with me, it’s super interesting):

During the first day of the Cascadia Rising Exercise, 2016, the Washington State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) pretended that it had lost phones and internet. The SEOC floor was quiet and sluggish. People prepped paperwork, anticipating the flood of need when the phone lines came up. A few people were using cell phones and satellite phones to get information about the disaster from the counties (called “situational awareness” or sometimes “ground truth”).

Across the hall, the ham radio operators were hunched in close to their speakers trying to distinguish fuzzy connections. These volunteers are part of RACES (rhymes with trees), Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service which activates to help in an emergency. The “amateur” in their name is a reference to the FCC’s designation of the band of radio waves they use; NOT a reference to their skill level. These guys are pros.

If being without phones and internet is distressful normally, imagine being responsible for disaster response without any way to easily connect to your field teams. That’s why getting coms up is first priority for disaster managers. The military (and some civilian companies) have developed ultra-light gear that can be set up for immediate connection.

The Beachball or the “Gatr”

FEMA has brought an inflatable satellite in the shape of a 6 ft white ball. The “dish” itself is merely a reflective fabric on the inside of the ball while the skinny LNB arm juts out of the ball a few inches. The pressure of the air and the round shape of the ball keeps the dish in the correct parabolic shape while also keeping it at the right focusing distance (according to the manufacturer’s website). The whole thing fits in two to four storage-bin sized chests and can be working in about 6 hours. Most of that time is spent trying to manually find the satellite connection. The ball has to be tethered down in  8 spots to keep it from rocking or shifting in the wind. The manufacturer claims that the round shape actually makes it more stable in the wind. Still, one FEMA tech guy admits he far prefers the MERS or Mobile Emergency Response System because the satellites lock automatically. It was probably better before they switched satellite providers, he tells me. Even so, the beach ball can provide cheap high-bandwith to a mobile team fairly quickly and with very light equipment. Ideal for first responders. Theoretically, you could air drop it into impassable areas.

Fun fact: Gatr is the name of the company that sells them.

The Portable KU-band Satellite Dish: A bit larger and set up nearby is a portable ground-mounted satellite dish. It takes a bit longer to set up and fits in twice as many cases. But seems to serve a few more people.

MERS: Mobile Emergency Response System. An office on wheels

The MERS that the FEMA tech prefers is a small camper with a satellite dish on top. Inside is all the telecommunications equipment you might want: VOIP (internet phones), wifi, radios, and video/audio equipment. A tiny conference table in the middle seats 4 with more work spaces along the counter. The truck can provide 40 people in a building nearby with phone or internet or provide 10 people working in the truck with phones AND internet. The truck can be loaded onto a Boeing-137 or C-5 plane for transport into disaster areas. While it is more stable and a little more powerful, it also requires cleared roads. The military has a similar vehicle (see second left).

The MERS trucks can drive right onto a C-5 like this one and be dropped off near disaster areas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Charlie Miller)


Cell Trucks

A Sprint truck deploys in the Cascadia Rising Exercise. Many cell service providers routinely practice with disaster personnel.

Of the same size as the MERS are a variety of “cell on light trucks”. All the cell providers have mobile teams who deploy to disaster zones with these trucks in order to re-establish cell service while their permanent cell towers are being fixed. The truck deploys a 70 ft antenna and a satellite dish supported by a generator that can run for 1-2 weeks depending on how hot it is. The equipment inside the truck needs to be kept cool, so much of the generator fuel is used for that. The truck can support about 600 simultaneous users which is about the capability of a regular cell tower. Also, many of the the cell providers–according to Sprint–bring phones to the disaster area. They can pre-load contacts and provide them to field agents who can then use them to edit and share maps, communicate with search and rescue personnel, send and receive email, etc.

The best of the best is spelled JISCC. The Joint Incident Site Communications Capability.

The JISCC (rhymes with wisk) is run by the National Guard and represents the pinnacle of ability. It was the spidery JISCC antenna that I had spotted deployed on a strip of land and which piqued my curiosity. I felt especially honored and grateful to be given a guided tour of the whole operation (special thanks to a major who wishes to remain anonymous who gave me over an hour of his time). Unfortunately, I was only able to get photos of the outside of the JISCC. I will do my best to describe the inside.

The JISCC does everything. Twice. First, I was shown a tiny closet where a young airman hunched over a box with 6 inch screen in the lid and buttons and wires all inside it. That grainy picture, I was told, was the feed from the helicopter flying over the (pretend) disaster area. The National Guard command was working with the state to get visuals of different areas to guide search and rescue or assess damage. The JISCC was helping to collect that video. The helicopter camera was equipped with infrared so that we could use it at night.

Next, I was shown the main room where about 6 Guardsman (not including the lonely airman in the closet) worked on folding tables next to racks of equipment in a very cool room. In one corner was a chest high cabinet of radios. All kinds of radios: HF, VHF, UHF. The radios have cross-band repeaters for better range. Two guardsmen fiddled with dials trying to clear up the signal from the Puget Sound area. The radios can also talk to cell phones. Handy, I think. You can even send email over the radio, he tells me. I look dubiously at him. It sounds like a fax, he says, and on the other end, you have a computer which translates it into words again for you. This is one kind of interoperability that the National Guard strives for: communication between different kinds of technology.

On the wall to the left was a bank of routers for phones and computers. The JISCC brings light laptops and other equipment so you could conceivably talk to anyone on anything.

Outside, it’s 90 degrees; uncomfortably hot for us northwesterners. That’s one of the benefits of working in the JISCC, my guide says, laughing. The equipment has to stay cool, so you stay cool too. We walk over to a cordoned off area and he points out the antenna one by one.


Front: the antenna receives helicopter feed for the National Guard. Back right: the pole supports thin wires which collect HF radio waves.

The stico (named after it’s manufacturer) is an interoperable RF antenna. There’s also a VHF/UHF antenna, and a satellite dish which automatically finds the satellite. It’s point and shoot, he says. Just set it and go. The especially tall one with the funny spikes is the antenna receiving the helicopter feed. Next to it is a pole with wires attached to a tree and the ground. The wires are the antenna, he tells me, not the pole like you might think. It receives HF radio and this design makes it extremely light and packable.

A few steps away is the trailer and truck that all this goes on. It’s surprisingly small. In the field, the trailer can be set up with all the radio and router equipment from inside and air conditioned to keep it cool. I see a few fold-up chairs left in the truck. The whole thing can be loaded onto a C-130 and only needs a 6 person team. They’re currently thinking about ways the equipment can be air-dropped to affected areas. The only trouble is: if they drop it and wheels can’t get to it, then you’re stuck. And if wheels could get to it, why would you need to drop it?

My guide recalled how the National Guard JISCC team was called up last summer during the fires. The fireman had brought their own equipment to their base camp (an actual campground) but discovered that they were stuck in a valley. Their line-of -site satellite phones and radios didn’t work. They needed the National Guard’s communications support. They also found that having email and a fax machine on base was extremely helpful for organizing firefighter schedules and payment. 

“What’s the one thing you wish you could tell people.” I asked him. He paused squinting into the bright, unblemished sky. “We provide communication capability to people who are coming to help you,” he replied. 

As I walked back toward the cool, dark of the SEOC, I couldn’t help but be very grateful to the engineers, IT guys, and other geeky types who designed, ran, and maintained this equipment. From the individual volunteer HAM operators, to the portable satellites, the heavier MERS teams, and private cell trucks, to the wonderfully robust National Guard JISCC: all are important pieces to the response network. We couldn’t do it without them.


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