Sgt. 1st Class Eric Nutto displays the mobile relay system. (William H. McMichael / The News Journal)
BETHANY BEACH — The Atlantic hurricane season’s most active phase has arrived, and forecasters say it could be a bad one. But if Delaware is struck, the state Guard says, first responders will be able to seamlessly communicate and come to the public’s aid.
That’s thanks to a unique communications relay system fielded by the National Guard here and 53 other states, territories and Washington, D.C., that allows all those first responders to talk, regardless of what systems are down.
Delaware hosts the nation’s only classes in how to use it, at the Bethany Beach Training Site.
The system was born out of the chaos that ensued on the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Katrina left thousands homeless, and millions unable to communicate. The failures were particularly critical in the first responder community. Mississippi’s National Guard, for instance, could not effectively talk or trade messages with the governor or the state’s emergency management agency for 48 hours after the storm, according to a government report.
The outrage resulted in Congress funding a system that evolved into the Joint Incident Site Communications Capability, or JISCC. The $500,000 system, easily moved to wherever a vehicle can travel, allows any first responder to talk or trade email with anyone else who is linked into the system — via satellite, high-frequency radio links or whatever works.
Delaware gained the training school by providing some of the initial input on needed system capabilities, said Col. Dallas Wingate, the state Guard’s director of military support to Delaware and the state liaison with the Delaware Emergency Management Agency.
The loss of land lines, cellphone service and Internet, the 700-800 megahertz band so critical to first responders, and the power those systems require can severely limit emergency communications for days, even weeks.
This system brings those devices back to life — a critical capability in a state on the storm-whipped Atlantic coast.
“We can tie in anybody, as long as they have a radio and some way to communicate,” said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Nutto, lead instructor on the system for the 193rd Regiment Training Institute in Bethany Beach.
“It’s pretty amazing stuff.”
Delaware has two of the mobile units. The basic package consists of two stacks of racked gear, close to 6 feet high, and a much shorter one, all on rollers. Each system comes with three generators. Placing the 32-foot antenna mast on a building increases the range to 30 to 40 miles, Nutto said.
Once the system’s set up and powered, Nutto said, it can be controlled remotely. “I can call from home with my cellphone and control this whole package,” he said. “All the radios. From my cellphone. That’s what makes it good for commanders, or operators. You don’t have to dedicate somebody sitting right behind it.”
Improvements are continuous. Using the system’s new high-frequency module, first responders can send messages via amateur radio operators whose systems are linked to servers. “So you could send an email from this system to any other commercial email address anywhere in the world — without Internet connectivity,” Nutto said.
At the heart of the unit is a device that converts analog signals to digital and back again, Nutto said. “So it doesn’t matter what frequency you’re on, it doesn’t care what radio you’re on. As long as it’s hooked to it, it’ll pass the traffic out to another radio.”
The state Guard’s JISCC are staged in Bethany Beach and the New Castle Air National Guard Base. The Guard has deployed the system during the past two presidential inaugurations, and for full-on capability demonstrations such as one held two weeks ago in Sussex County.
The system wasn’t required in Delaware during Superstorm Sandy last year because the state’s primary communications network didn’t go down, according to Wingate.
But other Guard units deployed their systems in New York City during Sandy, and they were used to bridge communications for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s operations cell at Bennett Field — where 107 members of the Delaware Guard’s 1049th Transportation Company, just back from Afghanistan, were deployed to assist with emergency relief supply distribution — and at Camp Smith, N.Y.
Although the JISCC hasn’t been used during a full-on disaster in the state, Wingate and Nutto are confident that it’ll perform as expected.
“We’re lucky enough to have a full-time team,” said Nutto. “We’re up and operational at a moment’s notice.”
In the event of a catastrophe, Wingate said, “we have coverage across the state.” But, he cautioned, “it’s only as good as the operator.”
The Defense Department Inspector General was critical of Guard operators in a July report, saying that National Guard Bureau officials did not always ensure the systems were “available, maintained, staffed or ready for use” during domestic emergencies.
Delaware wasn’t among the problem states. The state Guard did not under-report “critical elements of JISCC readiness”; had no reported outages or major equipment problems; and did not fail to send students to training, said Army Lt. Col. Len Gratteri, a state Guard spokesman.
The school’s team — all of its instructors are the state’s 20 trained operators — constantly performs preventive maintenance on the system, Nutto said.
“When you’ve got a full-time team that actually takes care of it and operates it and maintains it the way it should be, there shouldn’t be that many trouble tickets,” Nutto said. “The system was built to be self-sustaining, so the equipment that’s in it just doesn’t ‘break.’ And if you maintain it properly, it’ll last for quite some time.”