Interoperability: National Guard Style

Many threats, natural and man made, confront the United States today. Protecting the United States homeland from attack is the highest priority of the Department of Defense (DoD). The world changed dramatically on September 11, 2001. The current foe is not another nation but terrorists seeking to undermine America's political will and destroy our way of life. The United States now engaged in war, a war whose length and magnitude could very well be unprecedented. By attacking U.S. citizens, economic institutions, physical infrastructure, and the very social fabric, they seek to destroy American democracy. The United States must never underestimate the devastation that terrorists seek to bring to Americans at home. To defeat 21st century threats, requires innovative thought, planning and action.

By law and tradition, the National Guard (NG) connects local communities to the federal government. NG units are located in most large localities, and they have the capabilities, legal authority, and structure to respond to attacks or natural disasters within the homeland. The NG maintains armories and units within each of the 54 states and territories. This close relationship between the NG and their localities ensures that local NG units are prepared to respond when needed. The cooperative spirit and partnership between the Virginia National Guard (VNG) and public safety is well documented, especially during events such as natural disasters, weather related emergencies and terrorist attacks. One noteworthy characteristic about the NG in general, is that they are citizens of the state in which they serve.

The command structure of the NG is well-situated to oversee the training of units in weapons of mass destruction consequence management. Currently, the NG of each state and territory maintains a Civil Support Team that is trained and equipped to respond to a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) events. NG units have the capabilities to work with state and local officials to quickly rebuild "mitigating infrastructure" such as roads, bridges, and water supplies. Further, they should determine their ability to provide backup systems, such as power generation, water distribution, and communications systems, for local emergency facilities.

The NG can do all of these and is already doing them to some extent. But these critical activities and many others require full communications interoperability with state and local as well as federal agencies. The NG requires a networked environment in which full interoperability exists to allow all NG users and mission partners to access and share accurate, secure and timely information. The environment must provide for real time situational awareness and reliable communications.

The DoD responded to performance shortfalls during the 2005 hurricane season, including Hurricane Katrina, by upgrading and disseminating technology that promotes communications among responders. Prior to 2005 military communications, including those of the NG, was accomplished almost solely by Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINGARS), which is not configured for communications with civil authority and public safety personnel. However, the National Guard Bureau very quickly began to invest in portal and collaboration tools which facilitate planning and information sharing among the local, state, and federal entities that respond to disasters and other domestic incidents. It used supplemental congressional funding to upgrade and field its interim satellite incident site communications sets called the Joint Incident site Communications Capability (JISCC). As of today over 26 JISCC systems have been installed and are fully operational within NG Units.

At its core JISCC consists of software defined radios and a radio interoperability system. The JISCC is a key solution to the issue of interoperability among public safety and military responders. The radios and the repeater are provided by the E. F. Johnson Corporation. The SyTech Corporation provides the Radio Interoperability System. The JISCC consists of five modules.

  1. The Reach Back Communications. This system allows non-skilled personnel to operate mobile Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellite communications equipment enabling the user to access any broadband application over satellite.
  2. On Scene Command Post (CP) Integration Module. This system allows the NG to have VoIP phones, computer stations, video teleconferencing, facsimile, scanner, and printer. The VoIP phones will allow for communications to any phone number connected to the Public Switching Telephone Network or to any internet phone. The computer stations will have the full suite of Microsoft Office running under Windows XP and with MS Explorer and full connection to the Internet. A Polycom Server is included allowing for full video teleconferencing to any world wide location. An HP printer, scanner and fax station is included with the IT module.
  3. Voice Interoperability. Radio Inter-Operability System (RIOS). The RIOS has been developed by the SyTech Corporation to provide public safety/services agencies and other first responders with a system that facilitates communication between dissimilar communication such as different radio frequency (RF) bands or modulation schemes, phone lines, or network connections. The RIOS consists of a computer, interoperability chassis and the inter-connecting radios. The communications between the radios is controlled through the use of a PC computer and SyTech designed and developed software. The RIOS allows for the full capabilities of a dispatch center (telephones, radios, and data). The RIOS is fully compliant with all police, fire and EMS radio communications. A report writer-generator allows for the automatic creation of any reports required by police or fire departments. Some of the features of the RIOS include:
    a. User friendly graphical user interface
    b. Ability to control radio frequencies remotely
    c. Ability to act as repeaters
    d. Dispatcher capabilities
    e. All channels are re-configurable
    f. Integrated voice and data
    g. Audio store and forward
    h. Wide Area Radio Network
    i. No limit on the number of talk groups
    j. PC remote client
    k. PBX
    l. Automatic report generation
  4. Incident Site Communications. This module has 25 handheld UHF radios and a UHF repeater. The UHF handheld radios and HF repeater are available to be used by the NG personnel at the incident site. The use of the UHF Handheld and the repeater allows for coverage to approximately 10 to 15 miles from the incident site.
  5. Support Equipment. The Support Equipment Module provides the JISCC with the ability to function as a total stand alone system. All power, power distribution, power conditioning and an uninterruptible power source are provided. Three generators are provided to allow for redundancy and to allow for one generator to be off line for maintenance and service. Generator oil and other service items needed are included so that maintenance can be performed on a regular basis while at the incident site. Other support items include a Base X Tent with light kit, hard rolling floor, cargo trailer, tables and chairs.

As sophisticated as it is, how JISCC is deployed is as important as the system itself or any of its components. The VNG is committed to responding effectively and on time to incidents when ordered. The goal of the VNG is to provide units to assist civil authorities and responders in protecting life and property and preserving peace, order, and public safety during periods of natural or man-made disaster. Some of the missions that the VNG is capable of supporting include but not limited to: Civil Disturbance Operations, Site and Area Security, Critical Facility Security, Traffic Control, Emergency Shelter, Emergency Power, Water Purification, Customs Inspection, Counter-drug Operations, Logistical Base Support, Transportation Support, Aviation Support, Firefighting Logistics, Search and Rescue, Medical Treatment, Debris Cleaning, Maintain Vital Public Services. To effectively accomplish these missions the VNG possess the following capabilities: Rapid Deployment, Aviation Operations, Search and Rescue, Engineer Operations, Transportation, Maintenance, Firefighting, Interoperable Communications, Command and Control, Medical, Chemical, Law Enforcement. These supporting capabilities are extremely important for areas that may not have these critical resources (technology and personnel) in the wake of a serious attack or natural disaster.

Organizationally, the VNG is comprised of the Virginia Army National Guard, the Virginia Air National Guard, and the Virginia Defense Force. Working with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the broader public safety community, the VNG has formed three Joint Task Forces (JTFs) specifically to respond to incidents:

  1. JTF-Tidewater.
  2. JTF-Northern Virginia.
  3. JTF-Support.

Each JTF is commanded by a general officer and has a specific pre-designated mission to accomplish. Additionally, exactly how the mission will be accomplished is documented in a series of very detailed operational plans. A critical component of all JTF mission accomplishment is the effective and efficient communication with civil authorities and public safety responders. The JISCC is key to this success. So that it will be optimally available when needed, the JISCC is centrally positioned with the Joint Headquarters' Joint Operations Center at Fort Pickett, and can be deployed, with technicians, by air or ground and made operational within 48 hours.

NG JISCCs from other states may also work in conjunction with the VNG or fill-in should the VNG's JSICC be deployed elsewhere or unavailable. Activation of the Virginia National Guard JISCC is done through authorization of the Governor and coordinated by the Virginia Emergency Operations Center (VEOC). The VNG is also included as an integral component of the Commonwealth of Virginia's Statewide Interoperability Strategic Plan. Public safety agencies and emergency managers are encouraged to contact their National Guard to find out more about the JISCC that may be available in their respective states.

The JISCC has made the NG a real and important player in supporting civil authorities and responders to natural and man made incidents by providing a here to for unimaginable communications capability. This achievement is extraordinary and has been accomplished in an extraordinarily short period of time.


William A. (Allen) Ayers, Jr. is a government contractor with the Virginia Department of Military Affairs and serves as an Interoperability Planner and also serves on the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee.

Charles Werner is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and has served in both career and volunteer capacities in both Fire and EMS services. He has previously held the fire positions of firefighter, lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, training chief, communications chief and deputy chief. He presently holds the position of Fire Chief with the City of Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department.

Chief Werner is the TechZone Editor for Firehouse.com and a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine with over 60 local and national publications. As a consultant for Firehouse Magazine, Charles was instrumental in the original development and launch of Firehouse.com.

Chief Werner is an active member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and serves the IAFC as a member of the Communications Committee and Homeland Security Council. Locally, Chief Werner serves the community on the Local Emergency Planning Committee, coordinates the Regional Emergency Planners and the City of Charlottesville Emergency Preparedness Committee. More recently, Werner participated in the emergency responder workshop for the Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection (I3P) and participated with the Council on Excellence in Government Preparedness initiatives.

Chief Werner is a technology advocate for the fire service. He actively promotes technology and challenges fire departments and vendors to 'raise the bar' when it comes to technology. In the Firehouse.com Members Zone, Chief Werner will highlight technology issues and report on technology successes monthly. Chief Werner will receive and review such submissions for publication. If you have a technology success and you would like to submit it, please email it to wernerc@charlottesville.org. See you and your story in the Members Zone.

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