First responders must be able to communicate with each other, other government agencies and the public in order to assist victims of natural and man-made disasters.
According to Nick Brown, interoperable communications coordinator of the terrorism division of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, first responders — fire departments, law enforcement and emergency medical personnel — use different types of communication equipment and operate their radios on different frequencies.
Add to this challenge the need to communicate with military support units that also might be required, and it’s clear that the lines of communication must be kept open by frequent training exercises.
“What we’re having here today is a communications exercise,” Brown said as he pointed to a half-dozen mobile communications units parked near the terminal at Wright Army Airfield. “The communication capabilities of first responders are different, and they use different radio systems and frequencies than Fort Stewart, but they all have to be able to talk to each other, and that’s what this exercise is about.”
Brown said EMAs from Liberty, Effingham, Chatham and Bryan counties, as well as the Liberty County Amateur Radio Group, Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Institute of Technology and Fort Stewart’s Directorate of Emergency Services were taking part in the exercise.
“Today’s exercise has been a year in planning,” he said. “It’s the sixth such communications exercise in the state, but the first one for the coast.”
Brown described a scenario in which a major hurricane might hit Coastal Georgia and damage communication lines and each county’s mobile communication units. Because they now have an understanding of each county’s communication capabilities, the state’s EMA can request back-up units from another part of the state.
“One of the important things about this exercise is that it focuses strictly on communication capabilities,” he said. “We’ve conducted other emergency response exercises where we used these capabilities, but we didn’t focus on them.”
He said each of the mobile communication units’ primary function is “patching” transmissions from one source through a secondary device onto a receiving agency, thus enabling agencies to communicate with each other. Each mobile communications unit is also capable of satellite reception that provides Internet, telephone and radio capability.
“This unit is an Area 5 Asset,” said Mike Hodges, director of Liberty County EMA. “That simply means we serve up to 12 counties in this area. Being a mobile unit, we can set up closer to the incident scene. When we are set up, which doesn’t take us very long, we are the command and control module for emergency services.”
Like the communication equipment inside them, each mobile unit at the exercise was different, but each served the same function. One looked like an RV while another seemed to be a standard fire truck fitted for communications equipment.
Each vehicle was labeled differently as well.
Liberty County’s mobile unit is a large pull-behind trailer labeled Incident Command Communications. A satellite and boom arm antenna on top of the trailer and the sound of a generator indicated the unit was up and ready for operation.