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Security forces enhances situational awareness with Arctic command, control innovation

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland – A polar bear prowls Thule Air Base Sept. 14, 2011. Bears are not an uncommon sight at Thule, located 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle, as they dominate their high ground foraging for food. The air base has a warning system in place to alert residents if a bear is nearby, as well as tools to discourage the bears from venturing onto base. Thule Air Base is one of the six installations operated by the 21st Space Wing. (Courtesy photo/Danish Chief Petty Officer Lars Iversen)

The desolate environment at Thule Air Base makes reliable communication vital. The 821st Air Base Group is implementing a new land mobile radio system to enhance communications capabilities and improve safety. The 821st ABG is one of the 21st Space Wing’s many geographically separated units. (File photo)

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland -- Airmen at Thule Air Base are adopting a new land mobile radio system, enhancing their communications capabilities.

Known as Terrestrial-Trunked Radio, or TETRA for short, this LMR system's employment will result in enhanced situational awareness, removal of a redundant command and control node, savings of one security forces post, and enhanced emergency services interoperability across all 821st Air Base Group agencies. The new system will enhance emergency services at the remote site.

The security forces' base defense operations center manages a command and control structure involving numerous first responder agencies across a massive geographic area encompassing 2,400 acres of real estate. The installation resides approximately 900 miles south of the North Pole, 15 miles from the polar ice cap, on an inlet to the Arctic Ocean known as North Star Bay.

The air base's mission requires daily travel exceeding 10 miles across rocky terrain with significant changes in elevation. Thule AB routinely experiences hurricane force winds during long and arduous storm seasons from September through May. As a result, procedures adopted for safety and mission execution mandate BDOC maintain contact with all personnel traveling across the installation during contingency storm operations. In fact, all movement is strictly controlled by the installation commander due to potential white-out storm conditions resulting from 100 mph winds and the risk to personnel should they lose situational awareness during their commute.

In all, the security forces squadron maintains communication with a host of customers, including the squadron's posted forces, Danish police, and contractor-provided fire and medical response forces, and manages interoperability between installation senior leaders and four separate command and control centers. Prior to TETRA, BDOC managed this requirement across three disparate communications platforms.

The TETRA currently being installed at Thule AB is unique in that, unlike typical first responder systems, it is based on the UHF electromagnetic wavelength rather than the typical VHF range. As a result, it provides greater range and the ability to pierce the dense walls of Thule's facilities, used to combat the severe environmental climate.

The TETRA system provides a suite of capabilities including GPS location designation for all users, multiple voice-call modes - person to person or full network broadcast - text capability, and duress annunciation. As a result, BDOC can maintain communications with all 821st Air Base Group and Greenland contractor senior leadership, and all non-emergency and emergency response agencies on one LMR platform.

At the same time, BDOC can visually track - via a digital mapping display - the location and travel data associated with all personnel in possession of a new handheld TETRA, and verify the employment of security forces personnel during all other contingency response incidents. Finally, the range of this system will allow the primary BDOC to control all forces across the 2,400 acre Thule defense area.

Many organizations participated in this shift to ensure the first responder community at Thule AB had a system capable of the significant geographic coverage and situational awareness necessary to ensure sound response protocols. The 821st Support Squadron Communication Flight recognized the technological capability, conducted site surveys and system testing, and communicated to the Air Force Space Command Communications and Information Directorate the need and justification that resulted in approval for a system not previously used.

The 821st Security Forces Squadron plans and programs section coordinated the re-write of an existing AFI with the AFSPC Security Forces Directorate to allow for the employment of the new technology. Finally, identification of the system and its potential occurred as a result of the communication's expertise that resides within the Greenland contractor's staff, who is also the primary installer of the equipment which achieved initial operational capability at the end of April.

The ability of those involved in the acquisition and employment of TETRA to break through long-held beliefs about one way to do business has resulted in a level of situational awareness never before possessed at Thule AB.

In times of shrinking budgets and reduced manpower, innovation is critical to the success of force protection initiatives. When dominating the high ground from a climatically-challenging area like Thule AB, innovation is vital.

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