August 28, 2013 -- By Jim Katzaman, MCSC Corporate Communications
For more than a decade the Marine Corps has been on a deliberate course to build and enhance its emergency response system. Whether the enemy is a manmade or natural disaster, first responders require quick, seamless communications between agencies to save lives and property.
The answer is in the airwaves, notably those generated at Marine Corps installations by enterprise-land mobile radios, known by their shorthand moniker, E-LMRs. These devices provide the wireless radio frequency communications needed to support emergency 911 dispatch centers and first responders such as military and civilian police, firemen and emergency medical services.
Differing, incompatible communications systems hindered first responders in emergencies such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and November 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, said Dimitrios Glitzos, E-LMR team lead at Marine Corps Systems Command.
“The Department of Defense mandated in 2001 that all non-tactical radio systems on military installations had to conform to a uniform standard,” he said.
The Marine Corps answered the call by creating the E-LMR, a modern digital radio system based on commercial equipment. E-LMR conforms to the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials Project 25, which established a suite of standards for digital radio communications for use by federal, state, province and local public safety agencies in North America. The goal is to communicate with other agencies and mutual aid response teams in emergencies.
By November 2002, E-LMR became a program of record within Marine Corps Systems Command, bringing funds to bear toward expansion and modernization.
MCSC is the Department of the Navy’s systems command for Marine Corps ground weapon and information technology systems. It is also the Marine Corps commandant's agent for acquisition and sustainment of warfighting systems and equipment.
Although Project 25 focuses on North America, Glitzos and his E-LMR team of Maj. Adrian Adame, Terrence Reed, Bernard Hayward, Darryl Shamble, Mike Mishoe and engineer William Wheeler cast their electronic net worldwide divided into East, West and Pacific regions.
“E-LMR provides coverage to 95 percent of the populated areas of each military base,” Wheeler said. “That includes huge areas in the West with thousands of acres in rough terrain. The equipment is also versatile. It can handle up to three frequency bands, but a Marine first responder only has to carry one radio.”
The continental United States presents formidable challenges, but in the Pacific Region the E-LMR has to endure especially harsh baptisms of earth, wind and fire. Jon Page, project manager for E-LMR in Okinawa, Japan, has seen firsthand how the communications system performs against the best Mother Nature and man can offer.
“Before the E-LMR solution was in place for Okinawa, our 911 dispatch center used a phone tree,” Page said. “The 911 information was taken verbally from the caller, written down and passed verbally to the respective district via telephone. They, in turn, would pass it to fire, medical, military police, etc. who then would dispatch the individual units. If more information became available, was incorrect or changed, the process repeated itself all over again.”
Marine Corps Base Butler on Okinawa is made up of disparate camps and adjacent facilities – Lester, Fort Buckner, Ieshima, Tengan – spread throughout the island. The centralized dispatcher had no direct means to communicate with responding units due to geography and technical limitations. Then in 2010, MCSC upgraded the Okinawa E-LMR.
“This brought us out of our archaic phone tree and provided our first responders with seamless roaming throughout the island,” Page said. “We know the first responders have unpredictable days, which could have them responding to a fire, earthquake or tsunami; during a typhoon, active shooter or any other scenario. You can’t provide a normal wireless solution for those willing to risk their life to save another. When the radio button is pushed, it has to work.”
Across the Pacific, the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center 18 miles north of Bridgeport, Calif., is one of the Corps’ most remote and isolated posts. It does not command the headlines of a densely populated island regularly pummeled by typhoons, but communications are just as essential. Bradley Hurley, information technology installation operations officer, attests to that.
“We’re in the heart of California’s eastern front of the Sierra Mountain Range,” he said. “The installation’s rugged mountainous environment consists of towering 11,000-foot mountains with deep draws, constricted canyon roads and extreme winter weather conditions. It’s a complex operating environment.”
The training center operates on 64,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land with a military housing complex 22 miles north of the base camp. The training center emergency management systems are frequently challenged to operate with less than 45 percent communications coverage. There is no coverage through 14 miles of constricted mountainous canyons between the housing complex and base camp.
In June, the training center received the first part of a much-needed E-LMR upgrade. This phase upgraded the handheld and vehicular multi-band radio subscriber equipment for the installation’s Provost Marshall Office and Fire Department. It also consolidated dispatch from the antiquated single-band radio system to the new multi-band radio equipment.
“The upgrades to the training center’s EMS have brought an increased operational communications capability to the installation and have bridged the gap along the 14-mile stretch from main side to base housing,” Hurley said. “Because the remote location challenges inter-agency operations, the training center’s improved interoperability has been a welcomed upgrade. These capabilities support our mutual aid agreements with local law enforcement, EMS and dispatch authorities.”
Whether in Okinawa or California, regardless of geography or climate, the E-LMR sets and meets a high standard.
“Our key performance parameter is 99.9 percent availability 365 days a year,” Wheeler said. “That equates to a max of 8.76 hours of down time per year. E-LMR meets and exceeds that standard. We’re going to continue full and open competition to rip out and replace old infrastructure throughout the Marine Corps.”
The upshot, he added, will be faster, better, more efficient communication among military and civilian first responders when every second counts to save a life.