Task force rolls DICE to keep lines open

Exercise aims for interoperability with DHS, first responders

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: DICE fosters communication practice before disaster strikes.

Lt. Col. August Schalkham, Air Force

The scene of a terrorist attack or a large-scale natural disaster, experts agree, is no place for technology specialists from different response agencies to begin coordinating communication efforts.

'The time of an incident,' said Air Force Col. Babette Lenfant, director of communication systems for the Joint Task Force Civil Support, 'is not the time we want to be exchanging business cards with the National Guard and saying, 'Here, this is what I do.' '

Various military services, the Department of Homeland Security and first responders such as police and fire departments are getting better acquainted with each other's communications systems during the Defense Department's Interoperability Communications Exercise.

DICE 2006, which started Feb. 6 and continues to April 14, is designed to establish whether systems are interoperable so when an emergency does happen, various agencies and levels of government can communicate effectively and efficiently.

The end goal, Lenfant said, is to take stock of the strengths and weaknesses of existing systems.
'It's a great opportunity to see it all,' Lenfant said.

DICE has its origins in smaller-scale equipment certification tests started in the late 1980s. Since then, it has evolved into DOD's premier interoperability exercise. In 2002, DICE became an annual event, based at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. This year, DOD held exercises in Okinawa, Japan; Fort Monmouth, N.J.; Camp Pendleton, Calif.; and Fort Monroe, Va., where JTF-CS, and Col. Lenfant, are headquartered.

At the Fort Monroe exercises, DICE participants tested multifunction mobile units designed to establish channels of communication at even the most devastated scenes.

A leading example of this type of system is the Air Force's Hammer Adaptive Communications Element (Hammer ACE), based at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

Run by a three-man rapid deployment team of engineers and technicians outfitted with advanced communications equipment, Hammer ACE (which has its own slogan: 'Anytime ... Anyplace ...') is ready to go within three hours of notification. It also can begin operating 15 minutes after arrival on site'with the assistance, if needed, of a car battery or solar blanket to temporarily power the system.

The unit's services include an International Maritime Satellite (INMARSAT), developed by Thrane and Thrane Inc. of Virginia Beach, Va.

A Hammer ACE system includes:
  • An Iridium satellite phone, providing worldwide secure access

  • A UHF satellite radio with three multiband terminals made by Raytheon Co.

  • A land mobile radio with 12 handheld Motorola XTS-5000 radios

  • A video teleconferencing unit made by Scotty Tele-Transport Corp. of the Americas Inc. of Norcross, Ga.

  • A GPS receiver from Garmin International Ltd. of Olathe, Kan.

  • Cell phones from Engenius Technologies of Costa Mesa, Calif.

  • Dell notebooks

  • A Blackjack TS-21 fax machine.

At Fort Monroe, Staff Sgt. Travis Queen demonstrated how the unit could connect the cell phones, land mobile radios, land-line phones and satellite radios used by different personnel, then link them all in a 'talk group' so the responders could hold phone conferences.

Other agencies reported positive findings at Fort Monroe as well.

Army personnel displayed their expeditionary communications unit'a tent and satellite dish that provides videoconferencing, secure telephone service, laptop computers, Internet connectivity and e-mail.

DICE exercises, Army personnel said, allow for productive mobility testing, so the unit can be relocated quickly.

Specialists from the South Carolina Army National Guard, manning their own mobile communications center called ACE 1000, have been using their unit's ability to 'cross-band,' or interface different radios, to plug communication gaps between federal agencies and local first responders.

Overall, Lenfant said one of the key lessons of DICE 2006 is that maintaining interoperability is an ongoing job because technologies and capabilities are always evolving. Next year, she said, she hopes the exercise will expand further with the inclusion of system specialists from the Red Cross.

Mark Tarallo is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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