National Guard Touts ATAK Use in Hurricanes

National Guard Magazine has an article that covers some of their use of ATAK during last year’s hurricanes.  Here is the relevant portion, and some discussion of FirstNet.Gov.  We expect to put TAKServer and ATAK-Civ in the FirstNet Store “soon”.  You can also find a copy of this article in pdf format here (see the last two pages).

Force Tracker

When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last August, Guard troops were among the first responders, along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and local police, firefighters, emergency medical teams, immigration officials, the U.S. Secret Service and others.

It was clear from the start that keeping track of hundreds of personnel from the multitude of agencies, and keeping them in touch with one another, was going to be a challenge.

But the Department of Homeland Security had an app for that. It was the Android Team Awareness Kit. DHS describes it as “a government off-the-shelf app for Android smartphones,” and offers it to all government agencies for free.

Because it was new, users were skeptical. Texas Air Guard Tech. Sgt. Kyle Evans said his Joint Air Ground Control Team hoped ATAK might be useful as a way to keep track of its members as they moved out into the disaster area. But soon “the stunning situational awareness and ability to react in real-time” prompted Evans and others to urge hurricane response commanders to adopt ATAK enterprise-wide, the DHS Science and Technology Directorate said in a post-hurricane report.

“Instead of hearing intermittent radio transmissions from unknown operators at unknown locations while simultaneously engaging in an action themselves, these operators can now see who and where those elements are on a mobile screen and even communicate with team members from different agencies and do it in a multitude of ways,” the report said.

ATAK uses global-positioning satellites and digital maps to provide its users with a real-time view of the area of operations. Similar to the military’s Blue Force Tracker, ATAK beams maps to Android phones to show where other operators are. It also provides topographical, weather and terrain data.

“Multiple organizations used it to coordinate rescues, respond to criminal activity, identify infrastructure breeches, and establish perimeters in danger zones, in addition to multiple other collaborative activities,” DHS reported.

ATAK enabled communication between agencies that were unable to communicate in the past because they use different equipment, different radio frequencies and incompatible encryption.

The app supports voice, text and file sharing, including photos and video. It can be set for user-to-user, user-to-team, user-to-command post or user-to-entire force communication, DHS said. And it can be downloaded onto phones and tablets. There is a Windows version, and an iPhone version is under development, DHS said.

What if there is no cellphone service after a hurricane, tornado or wildfire?

“A simple ATAK plug-in” enables peer-to-peer radios to use the app “in cellular-challenged or denied environments,” the agency says.

The Guard is likely use ATAK again. “The success of ATAK in Texas prompted it to be deployed again when Florida was slammed by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico,” DHS says. And “it would be ideal” for national special-security events that the Guard participates in, such as Super Bowls, presidential inaugurations and other high-profile events.

FirstNet—At Last

It has been 16 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks highlighted the problem that emergency communications devices often can’t communicate with one another. And it has been five years since Congress ordered the creation of a national first-responder network to solve the problem. That network is finally taking shape.

Called FirstNet, it would use a section of the wireless spectrum that has been set aside for public- safety communication. The goal is to create a nationwide broadband network that would enable first responders to communicate easily with one another, transmitting both voice and data.

Today, the nation’s first responders use more than 10,000 different networks for communication, and the networks often don’t interoperate. That’s according to AT&T, which won a $6.5 billion contract from the federal government in early 2017 to build the FirstNet network and run it for 25 years. By law, the network must be fully operational by the end of 2022. AT&T says it will spend $40 billion to build and operate the network.

“It’s our goal with FirstNet to give first responders access to a nationwide, interoperable and high-speed public-safety broadband network dedicated to their needs,” says AT&T spokesman Jeffrey Kobs. AT&T said that some first responders already have access to the network in states that have “opted in” to FirstNet.

The new network is intended to cover all 50 states and five U.S. territories, and provide emergency responders with real-time emergency information including voice, data, text and video communications to help them respond to floods, fires, hurricanes and other disasters. If cell towers are knocked down in a disaster, AT&T says it will rush new equipment to the scene.

The information would flow over Band 14 of the wireless spectrum, which was set aside by Congress in 2012 for use as a public-safety broadband network. It’s intended to avoid problems encountered on 9/11 when cellphone users trying to contact friends and relatives jammed wireless networks.

AT&T is allowed to use Band 14 for commercial communication, but must kick that traffic off when emergency responders need it. In addition to Band 14, AT&T will make its existing LTE bands available to first responders to provide the coverage and capacity they need, says AT&T spokesman John Moore.

States had the option to opt in to FirstNet, and a few state officials balked. Cost was one of the concerns. In October, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said FirstNet’s fees and penalties “appear to be arbitrary.”

To use FirstNet, police departments, the Guard and other first responders must “subscribe” to the network. AT&T declines to say how much it will charge. “We’re providing feature-rich services at competitive prices. Rates may vary for different agencies,” Moore says.

The need to procure FirstNet-compatible devices raises another cost concern. Moore says that “if a [Guard] unit already has AT&T equipment, then nothing new needs to be purchased as all AT&T LTE capable equipment will function on FirstNet.” If units use non-AT&T equipment and it can’t be made to work on AT&T’s network by inserting an AT&T/FirstNet SIM card, “then, yes, they would need to procure new devices from AT&T,” he says.

Guard units can subscribe to FirstNet through either state or federal contracts. “There are already some units in the process of procuring FirstNet devices and services,” Kobs says.

By the end of December, every state, including New Hampshire, had opted to join FirstNet.

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