Communications teams keep units talking during state active duty

Master Sgt. Mike Pittman and Staff Sgt. James Lumford conduct final operations checks on a Tactical Communications Package at Mullins Armory in Sandston. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

SANDSTON, Va. — Making sure Virginia National Guard troops can communicate during state active duty starts with a small group of military communications professionals who make sure all the necessary equipment is properly maintained and configured. Members of the Virginia Defense Force then use that equipment to keep information flowing between units on the ground and the Virginia Guard’s Joint Operations Center.

“It all starts with a small group of dedicated Soldiers and Airmen working behind the scenes to make sure that commanders in the field can communicate,” said Lt. Col. Dave Bennett, director of communications on the Virginia National Guard joint staff.

At the heart of the communications package provided for state active duty units is the Tactical Communications Package, or TacPak. The TacPak provides wireless internet access, cellular phone, satellite voice and data and video conferencing capabilities, and the final communications package adds cellular phones and handsets for the Virginia Statewide Agencies Radio System, or STARS, Bennett explained.

When the Guard is notified it will bring personnel on state active duty, Soldiers and Airmen working in the J6 communications section of the joint staff begin to assemble and test the equipment, making sure each set is specially tailored for the mission it will be supporting.

“Master Sgt. Mike Pittman does a tremendous job making sure the TacPaks are properly configured and operating properly,” Bennett said.

A member of the Virginia Defense Force puts a TacPak into operation Oct. 27, 2012, in support of Hurricane Sandy in Fredericksburg. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

From there, VDF members operating as Incident Management Assistance Teams, or IMATs, pick up the equipment and link up with the units in the field. They work directly with the mission commanders to keep important information flowing such as personnel status, logistics requirements and mission accomplishments.

During Hurricane Sandy in late October, more than 60 members of the VDF came from all around the commonwealth to deploy 13 IMATs at key locations along with Virginia Army National Guard units. In addition, VDF members augmented operations center personnel.

VDF members working in the IMATs receive special training on the TacPaks as well as in WebEOC, the web-based information management program used to track missions between units in the field, the Guard’s JOC and the Virginia Emergency Operations Center.

The VDF teams received universal praise for their teamwork and the contribution they made to the overall success of the Guard’s recovery operation, said Col. Jim Ring, Virginia National Guard director of joint operations.

“The VDF continues to prove themselves as an important element of the Virginia Guard’s response capability and helps make sure essential information is flowing between troops in the field and the JOC,” Ring said.

The experience gained from the operation will also benefit future training as the VDF personnel who took part in Hurricane Sandy support will now take their experience back as they help train other VDF IMATs.