By Tim Little, Office of Corporate Communications, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (www.nga.mil), Springfield, Va.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is known for its critical support of military and anti-terror initiatives. Often under the radar, however, are the agency’s ongoing efforts to expand its disaster relief capabilities. For instance, when Hurricane Sandy struck the U.S. East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012, NGA readied 20 analysts to deploy into areas affected by the violent storm to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Before the storm reached U.S. shores, and prior to any formal FEMA requests for assistance, NGA employees were hard at work planning for every turn Sandy might take. Having provided similar support during storms like Hurricanes Isaac and Katrina, analysts could anticipate what first responders would need before, during and after the storm.
“FEMA support covers mitigation recovery and response efforts during natural disasters,” said Katie Baucom, an analyst with NGA’s Integrated Work Group-Readiness, Response and Recovery team (IWG-R3). “Traditionally, NGA only provided [geospatial intelligence] support during the response phase, but now we’re looking for innovative ways to provide support to mitigation and recovery as well.”
In the days leading up to the storm, NGA devised contingency tasking plans for pre- and post-hurricane imagery analysis. The pre-strike hurricane products included images of 24 coastal cities whose critical infrastructures and key resources would be susceptible to damage if a hurricane landed in their vicinity.
The agency began deploying analysts Oct. 28, sending teams to FEMA’s East Coast regions in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Once on site, analysts established contacts with the lead federal agencies, performed communications checks with deployed equipment, evaluated customer needs and identified vulnerable critical infrastructure. To support the IWG-R3 mission, analysts rely on the data holdings within the Homeland Security Infrastructure Program.
“The HSIP database is assembled by NGA for use by the homeland defense, homeland security and national preparedness communities,” said Bill Mullen, a senior advisor for content technology in IWG-R3. “It is a compilation of approximately 475 of the best available geospatially enabled baseline infrastructure data sets for all 18 critical infrastructure key resource sectors assembled from federal, state, local government and private mission partners.”
During pre-hurricane analysis of the coastline, analysts reviewed more than 21,000 square miles of satellite data, according to Jeff Redinger, an IWG-R3 staff officer. This “before” picture of the landscape proves extremely useful for first responders as they assess the extent of damages and its impact to the population and infrastructure.
After the storm, the focus shifted to the impending clean-up effort and resumption of services. To support this effort, FEMA Region II Regional Response Coordination Center members from NGA operated 24/7 to create and update products on issues such as fuel status and power outages. The IWG-R3 teams created and pushed out unclassified products to a webserver accessible to NGA customers.
“Having a platform that allows customers to review existing [geospatial intelligence] products and request new ones reduces the likelihood of duplication of efforts,” explains Baucom. “This increased situational awareness and efficiency allows NGA to be more responsive to its customers and reduce the burden on NGA personnel, freeing them to do more complex analysis.”
While providing on-demand geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) in a self-service environment is helpful for first responders, it doesn’t nullify the need for full-service embedded NGA support on the ground or in a reach-back capacity during a large-scale emergency, according to Scott Matheson, an NGA analyst. Some teams of analysts use the Domestic Mobile Integrated Geospatial System (DMIGS).
Owned and operated by NGA’s military support directorate, DMIGS is built on the chassis of a fire truck, with two slide-out rooms to accommodate analysts. DMIGS integrates GEOINT hardware and software, including plotters that allow teams to print large products on site and on demand. The system also is equipped to receive geospatial data from multiple sources.
Clearly the tools and technical expertise accompanying DMIGS are an asset, but the greatest value is derived from its mobility, according to Andrew Lardner, a senior NGA systems engineer.
“This is why we have the DMIGS in the first place,” said Lardner. “It’s a mobile asset that we can pack up and take to where the customer needs us to be.”
In addition to the mobile DMIGS, the military support directorate deployed lightweight, highly mobile flyaway satellite communications and production system support teams.
“These teams allowed NGA analysts embedded with urban search-and-rescue teams in the hardest hit areas of New York and New Jersey to maintain access to reach-back support in areas where most communications and infrastructure had been severely degraded by the storm,” explained Jill Leas, chief of the expeditionary operations support division. “These mobile teams moved with their supported units and were often up and operational within 30 minutes of arrival on scene, providing communications, hard-copy and soft-copy production in extremely austere conditions.”
FEMA wasn’t the only agency to benefit from IWG-R3’s products and personnel. NGA also worked closely with the U.S. Coast Guard, providing mission-essential support, according to Rear Admiral Christopher Tomney, director of Coast Guard Intelligence. FEMA also recognized IWG- R3’s professionalism and support, according to Matt Gamm, an IWG-R3 analyst who worked alongside FEMA members.
“Both the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force leader and the Long Island section leader said our NGA forward-deployed
personnel were a tremendous asset, and the products created for the forces on the ground were relied upon and used heavily,” said