Mutualink News

NorthCom Event Aims to Solve Disaster Communication Issues

THE GAZETTE   | external link

U.S. Northern Command has wrapped up three weeks of testing on new technologies that could help cops and firefighters communicate at disaster scenes.

Seventeen companies joined in the program that has a ponderously long name — Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration. It’s an $11 million Defense Department program that’s aimed at fixing problems that have plagued disaster response for decades.

The problems are complex before disaster strikes — police. firefighters, federal agencies and the military all use different computer and radio systems that make coordinating efforts difficult. It’s worse when a tornado, hurricane or earthquake hits, destroying cellphone towers, radio transmitters and telephone lines that make those communications systems work.

“When people respond to an event they need to talk to each other,” said Bob Almont, who is heading the program for the Peterson Air Force Base command, which is responsible for stopping terrorist threats and coordinating the Pentagon’s response to disasters.

The solutions companies offered are fairly easy to understand. Cell phones that talk to satellites, weather balloons that act as temporary radio towers and computer systems that can allow different agencies to talk were just some of the ideas presented.

The command started the program in 2004 to allow smaller companies to grab the attention of Defense Department bosses with problem-solving technology.

Several of the ideas demonstrated at the annual event are now in use at Northern Command, most notably a computer program that came out of the 2004 event that is now used to share information and intelligence among federal agencies.

"This year we had a trial called Mutualink that took it to a different level," said Bill Crimmel, a Northern Command contractor who helped with the demonstration program.

The Connecticut firm is offering a computer system that allows instant communications between different radios, cell phones, land lines and satellite phones. The potential to create a worry-free communications network drew long looks from the government.

“They seem to be the one that generated the most interest,” Almont said.

The demonstration, supporters say, is a money-saver for Northern Command because the government isn’t footing the bill to research and develop the programs.

“You get an assessment of the technology before you buy it,” Almont said.

But the Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration is on the chopping block as the cash-strapped defense department works to slim its nearly $700 billion budget.

Almont said Pentagon leaders have, for now, eliminated money for the demonstration next year as organizers look for new ways to pay for and organize the showing of next-generation technology.