In July, 2015 President Obama signed the DHS Interoperability Act (H.R.615), requiring homeland security agencies to maintain interoperable communications for daily operations, planned events and emergencies.
The term "Interoperable Communications" is a mouthful. Simply put, it means that organizations using different communication systems can exchange and make use of important information in time of crisis. While the new law is specific to DHS, more organizations are becoming aware of the need for mass communication and collaboration with new legislation.
Recently, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA), the organization responsible for the safety and security of the Pentagon, piloted AtHoc's emergency management offering, AtHoc Connect, to solve interoperability challenges when communicating with the many government agencies in the National Capital Region (NCR) in a time of crisis. In a "war-game" type scenario, PFPA coordinated an exercise among multiple Defense and Homeland Security agency participants, and successfully demonstrated the capability of AtHoc Connect to facilitate communication and coordination across diverse systems and agencies in a crisis situation.
Eddie Herchert, Systems Engineer, Pentagon Force Protection Agency recently discussed the pilot program in a recent webinar. In this post, we detail the background, implementation, and results of the Pentagon's pilot interoperability communications program.
Watch the on-demand webinar: Interoperable Communications in the National Capital Region and Beyond
The Impetus: Different Organizations, Different Communications Networks
Prior to implementing the AtHoc Connect system, PFPA identified several major challenges to interoperable and secure information-sharing with a variety of mission partners in an emergency. For example, within the Pentagon, there are many Department of Defense (DoD) organizations that are housed in the same facility, some just sitting 50 feet apart from each other. Yet, since not all organizations are connected to the same internal network they are unable to communicate and collaborate in times of crisis.
The limited ability to communicate with organizations outside the Pentagon often presents a major issue as the PFPA is responsible for tens of facilities within the area with commitment to varying levels of protection throughout.
In order to analyze and optimize critical communications, it's important to analyze data from previous use cases with secure analytics. Data from external organizations within the Pentagon have traditionally been collected manually to comply with the highest levels of data security policies, proving to be manpower intensive and costly. This has led to compromises with tracking activities and alerts. For example, many alerts were sent through email, which PFPA couldn't monitor to determine which personnel who were receiving and reading the messages.
The Pilot: Connecting Four DoD Services Under One Network
With representation from all four DoD Services including the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, as well as from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), PFPA launched a 3 month Connect pilot program. The results were impressive.
Since AtHoc Connect allows disparate organizations to seamlessly communicate in real-time, PFPA immediately realized faster and more coordinated responses. When an alerting situation presented, PFPA seamlessly established secure connections with all four of the DoD Services as well as external partners to quickly alert and provide an overall effective emergency response.
After implementing Connect, PFPA was able to notify external organizations comprehensively and in compliance with cybersecurity rules across each of the participating federal, state and local agencies. Each organization was able to effectively send and receive alerts and notifications to and from participating organizations and ensure that the DoD and other federal agency regulations were met.
Not only were participants able to securely receive alerts and notifications but also they were able to quickly forward information from another organization to the appropriate personnel in the receiving organization. With this ability, organizations were able to create situational awareness and then share that information with other internal organization through cross-platforms.
The pilot also demonstrated the ability of all participating organizations to securely protect user contact data. With the Connect system, personal information remained within the home system and was never passed to organizations that were in cross-communication.
The Results: A New BlackBerry AtHoc Implementation Under Way to Protect the Protectors
After the conclusion of the pilot program, PFPA chose to implement the AtHoc Connect system in their emergency notifications system moving forward. PFPA is determining system configurations to meet their individual needs but the system is soon to be finalized.
Coordination and information-sharing across organizations is one of the greatest challenges in homeland security and the public safety community. With AtHoc Connect, organizations can rely on a flexible and secure communications platform to enable coordination and information sharing in even the most demanding scenarios.
For more information, please view the on-demand webinar, Interoperable Communications in the National Capital Region and Beyond.