Military to coordinate systems across all branches

Orlando ' As it begins a fundamental shift in its mission to encompass domestic disaster response, the military community is working to make its communications and computer systems interoperate across all its branches and with state and local emergency agencies' systems.

'Clearly, the world's changed since 9/11, and from our standpoint, [it] changed even more fundamentally after Hurricane Katrina,' said Steven Bucci, deputy assistant secretary of homeland defense and America's security affairs at the Defense Department, while leading a discussion on the nation's interoperability challenges during the Milcom 2007 trade show here this week.

Along with the military's new role as a critical component of the country's homeland defense and disaster response strategy, the uniformed branches of the military shoulder the American public's expectation that in the aftermath of a major emergency, 'the response will be immediate, will be overwhelming and will come off without a hitch,' Bucci said. 'In other words, none of us will be able to meet that expectation because it's physically impossible,' although our response posture is radically better today than before Katrina, thanks to the tireless work by local, state and federal officials government to plan and coordinate their joint response in states of emergency.

For officials who run the country's information technology and communications systems, the monumental task of establishing interoperability between literally thousands of disconnected and incompatible computer systems, applications and communications links is essential to preparing for cataclysmic events, although federal, state and local officials have made an exhaustive effort to address the problem and have made significant early improvements, panel participants said.

'We're so far ahead from where we were at Katrina that it's not even funny,' said National Guard Brig. Gen. Henry 'Hank' McCann. Notable improvements include the Joint Incident Site Communications Capability interoperable radio system that's preliminarily ready for use, DOD's creation of its Joint Information Exchange Environment computer system capable of tying together emergency personnel from all the branches of the government, and the establishment of Joint Command and Control Coordination Centers, McCann said.

One new initiative that's key to unifying the systems and coordinating the efforts of the military, national intelligence community, Homeland Security Department, all federal disaster relief agencies, and state and local first responders is creation of a Maritime Domain Awareness system. The MDA effort is being led by the Navy and will give officials a unified operational picture of a maritime-related disaster such as a hurricane and the ability to coordinate the government's response, said retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Dave Betz.

The system for the first time ties together agencies, such as the Navy, Marine Corp, Coast Guard, DHS and Federal Emergency Management Administration, that will be crucial to responding to disasters at sea or along our coast, Betz said.

'We are moving forward with this whole construct of Maritime Domain Awareness across our whole government, and that's important,' he noted.

New and encouraging news for the MDA effort is support for the program at top levels of the federal government, for example by the secretary of the Office of National Intelligence, who recently endorsed the plan, Betz added.

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