Saturday, April 28, 2012

Montana Air Guard unit’s asset makes disaster communication simpler

By Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Eric Peterson, 120th Fighter Wing

GREAT FALLS, Mont. – Since 2007, the 120th Communications Flight has operated a vehicle containing communications equipment that is able to respond to natural disasters or other emergencies occurring within Montana.

The Continuity of Operations Project vehicle is a Montana Air National Guard asset that can link on-scene emergency responders with command and control centers located anywhere in the country. Important decisions can then be made once the near real-time video is transmitted and studied by the command staff.

In addition to being able to stream internet video from the remotely controlled pan/tilt camera, the COOP truck offers Voice-Over-Internet Protocol telephone service, numerous radio bands, and the ability to set up video teleconferencing for emergency personnel at the deployed location.

The 120th Communications Flight commander, Air Force Lt. Col. Corey Halvorson, considers the communications technology offered by the COOP truck to be a valuable addition to any emergency response.

"Accurate and timely communication is the key to success in any contingency operation,” Halvorson said. “The COOP truck with its unique capabilities is a tool for command and control to ensure mission success and aids greatly in the preservation of life and property.”

The 120th cyber transport noncommissioned officer in charge, Air Force Master Sgt. Chris Wilson, said the high-tech services offered by the COOP truck are requested often to be used for training during exercises and real-world emergency events.

"Today, wireless internet is becoming such a big issue. Everyone needs to get on the internet,” Wilson said. “Whether you need maps or the ability to stream real-time video of the scene, everybody's going to need to get online. So we have the capability to hard wire to a laptop sitting in a tent or broadcast a wireless signal so people can still use their cell phones and wireless laptop computers to access the information they need.”

According to the assistant cyber transport noncommissioned officer in charge, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ray Cozino, the truck also offers an outstanding opportunity for 120th personnel to train on modern communications equipment. So far, eight of the 120th Communications Flight personnel have been fully trained in the operation of the truck and its high-tech equipment.

The COOP truck and its personnel have participated in 12 exercises and real-world events, including two major forest fires. Its services were well received by personnel assigned to the 120th Medical Group during the Vigilant Guard exercise held in Helena in 2009.

The communications personnel set up and operated the COOP truck equipment at Fort Harrison during the four-day exercise.

"One of the more challenging exercises that we participated in was the Vigilant Guard exercise, which was for a whole FEMA region, so there were a lot of different entities involved and it really put our truck to the test,” Cozino said. “We were tasked with providing communications for the Medical Group as they ran through all their different scenarios. We ran four Guardsmen through the truck and trained them and provided 24-hour communications for the duration of the exercise.”

Agencies responding to the scene of an emergency can often find that they use dissimilar radios broadcasting over different frequencies. The COOP truck can receive all of the frequencies and retransmit back to each radio in a signal common to all of the agencies.

"The radio world is so complex, whether it's a forest fire and you're dealing with the Forest Service and local volunteer fire departments and the local sheriff's office that [are] providing roadblocks and security;” Wilson said. “Those agencies are all operating on different frequencies and different bands of radios. With this truck, we're able to make all those people communicate more effectively and efficiently.”

Local, state and federal agencies can benefit from the services of the COOP truck during an exercise or a real-world emergency. The Montana Air National Guard maintains memorandum of agreements to assist Malmstrom Air Force Base; the Montana Army National Guard; the Great Falls Police Department; the Great Falls Fire and Rescue; the Cascade County Sherriff's Office; the Disaster and Emergency Services, and the Great Falls International Airport.

Wilson said the COOP truck is one of only four specialized military vehicles with the capability to provide communications support in the event of a natural disaster in the state.

The Montana Army National Guard also operates a nearly identical COOP truck which allows for cooperative training to occur between the Guard units.