Exercise gives Airmen closer look at disaster response

Robins Air Force Base, GA -- Communications can greatly impact a disaster's outcome.

That point was made when members from the 5th Combat Communications Group joined hundreds from more than 35 agencies at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va., in late March to provide communications for the Department of Defense Interoperability Communications Exercise.

Second Lt. Stephen Gallagher, a communications officer in the 54th Combat Communications Squadron, said the exercise allowed an up close look at disaster response.

"Northern Command and the Joint Taskforce Civil Support brought together several federal and local agencies to basically 'play' with communications equipment," he said.

Lieutenant Gallagher said participants faced many challenges.

"The point of this exercise is to gather this information and work through problems, but also find out what problems we can't work through and work the ones we can so that if in six months from now something bad (were to) happen, they can fall back on after action reports from this exercise and their planning process for how to get communications up at ground zero," he said.

Dale O'Neill, a systems integrator for AFITS who provided technical support finding solutions for technical challenges, said the team is still working out the kinks.

Most challenges centered on phone service.

Lieutenant Gallagher said the group used satellite capabilities to establish phone connectivity.

"One of our tasks during the exercise was to set up commercial phone lines and provide one of the phone lines to the city of Hampton's Command Center," he said. "Through our satellite link, we produced an actual phone line and then we ran a hard line across the street and plugged it into their recreational vehicle so that we were line one on their phone system and they could dial out to call to the office or do whatever they needed to do."

The 5th CCG's communications package will most likely be used to respond to future disasters, Lieutenant Gallagher said.

"The package we sent for an event like that becomes a 'user café,' especially for DOD members," he said. "We're working on technical solutions to break out services for civilian counterparts. It's a user café (in that) they have some limited capabilities providing phones and Internet outside of our small tent, but that's a very limited capability."

The group widened the realm of what it can do considerably, Lieutenant Gallagher said.

Staff Sgt. Michael Middleton, a satellite communications NCO in Satellite Wideband Telemetry for the 54th CBCS, said the 5th CCG would be the primary provider of communications for the Hampton area during an emergency.

Sergeant Middleton said his unit proved itself in the training.

"Because of our unit's capabilities, we're the only unit that was able to be self-sufficient," he said. "We take our own power, our own fuel, our own water and our own food. A lot of the units didn't have that capability."

Lieutenant Gallagher said U.S North Com has offered satellite access time to continue work on the process.