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JUNEAU, Alaska – Arctic Chinook “survivors” being hoisted onto a hovering Coast Guard rescue helicopter were unaware that equipment testing conducted by the Coast Guard Research and Development Center during the two-day mass rescue exercise could change the way large maritime incidents are handled in remote locations.
During Operation Arctic Chinook, nearly 30 role players portraying 200 passengers and crewmembers from the fictitious adventure cruise ship Arctic Chinook were transported from a simulated remote Arctic location outside of Kotzebue, Alaska, to higher care facilities in Kotzebue and Nome. Operation Arctic Chinook involved first responders from the Coast Guard, Air Force, Alaska National Guard, State of Alaska Emergency Response and Royal Canadian Air Force. The Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley acted as the on-scene commander during the maritime portion of the exercise, which involved searching for survival rafts and boats from the abandoned cruise ship.
The New London, Connecticut, based Research and Development Center participated in the exercise to evaluate state-of-the-art line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight communications equipment as well as the Next Generation Incident Command System.
Original exercise plans called for deploying communications equipment in the simulated remote Alaskan location of Tin City, overlooking the Bering Strait, but high winds and challenging weather conditions forced exercise planners to shift the exercise to a secondary location outside of Kotzebue. Coast Guard R&D Center researchers were able to rapidly shift to the new location and provide remote internet and voice capabilities within an hour of arriving.After being transported by two Air National Guard HH-60 helicopter crews to the remote Alaskan site, Ensign Gianfranco Palomba, one of researchers on the ground in the remote Arctic location, described the Coast Guard R&D Center’s communication equipment setup. “We conducted a site survey and deployed an ad hoc communications network. This ad hoc network delivered WiFi connectivity to all role players and field site members, while also featuring two live-stream camera feeds – an elevated point tilt zoom camera that could be remotely controlled as well as a mobile, shoulder-mounted bullet camera.”
Using the internet and voice connections provided by the state-of-the-art communications equipment, Search and Rescue coordinators at the Maritime Regional Coordination Center in Juneau and at the Alaskan State Emergency Operations Center in Anchorage were able to watch a live streaming video of rescue efforts occurring in the remote Arctic location.
In addition to providing situational awareness through the live video, R&D Center researchers facilitated the flow of information between Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley, Juneau Regional Coordination Center, Anchorage Emergency Operations Center and first responders on the ground in the remote Arctic location using the Next Generation Incident Command program. NICS is a web-based system developed by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory and the Coast Guard R&D Center. Rescue coordinators used the chat function to communicate in real time, track the progress of the rescue using standard Incident Command System symbols and share photos of on-scene conditions.
“NICS proved to be an effective situational awareness and coordination tool during Arctic Chinook,” said Lt. Keely Higbie, an R&D Center researcher located in the Alaska State Emergency Operation Center for the exercise.
“In the future, the ability to connect mobile units on-scene with local, state and federal decision-makers in the command and operation centers in real-time as NICS did, would enable more timely and well-orchestrated responses during mass-rescue and other emergencies that require joint efforts.”
Following the exercise, researchers from the R&D Center compiled a list of recommended upgrades to improve NICS, which is already in use by the California Department of Forestry and Fire to share information and maintain situational awareness during large forest fires.
One of the challenges of conducting a mass rescue exercise is ensuring that different groups of first responders are able to come together, understand one another, and work toward common rescue efforts. The Incident Command System methodology was created to provide first responders with a common set of terms and procedures for incident planning. “NICS takes this process a step further by facilitating rapid communication and situational awareness between incident planners and first responders,” said Jon Turban, the R&D Center project lead for the NICS evaluation. Lt. Cmdr. Samuel Nassar, the project lead for the Arctic communications assessment, stated, “The R&D Center will deliver a report which will provide visibility on the effectiveness of communications equipment currently available to connect first responders in remote locations during large maritime incidents.”
Videos of the exercise are available upon request. Please coordinate all media requests and inquiries through the R&D Center Public Affairs Officer, Lt. Joseph DiRenzo, Joseph.DiRenzo2@uscg.mil, (860) 271-2894.