Information-management directorate provides commo for Forest Service

by Keith Gray

The Army’s now used to thinking in terms of "joint" for teamwork with our sister services and our allies. Still new to us yet is working with other government agencies, but that’s exactly what the Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., directorate of information management’s information-technology team did to aid the Forest Service in fighting the Los Padres National Forest fire in fall 1999.

The fire, called the Hare Fire, in September-October 1999 marked the first time a large set-up of telecommunications and network technology was used in a joint effort with the Forest Service. And this vital commo network was provided by Army civilian Signaleers, working around the clock while firecrews fought flames.

Then there was no rest for the weary, as for two weeks in December 1999 Fort Hunter Liggett’s IT team supported a major Marine Corps Signal exercise, Desert Knight ’99, that took place on FHL. Both projects gave FHL’s IT team a chance to use digitized battlefield technology in earnest, setting up and maintaining voice and data links that provided field commanders a two-way conduit for real-time information. Lessons-learned from the fire were used to streamline work done to support the Marine Corps exercise.

Fire up above

Since FHL and the Forest Service have a reciprocal firefighting agreement, the FHL IT team brought its expertise to bear for the Forest Service. The result of this effort arguably made history, as noted, as the first time cutting-edge telecommunications, networking and Internet technology were used to fight a major forest fire. Adding to the challenge were the steep hills that make up the FHL and surrounding terrain.

The proximity of the fort to the fire was key in providing high-tech support to the firefighting effort. Thanks to the use of cutting-edge technology, we provided Forest Service incident commanders a steady stream of real-time "intelligence" which helped to guide the massive firefighting effort in the central California wilderness adjacent to FHL. That in turn enabled firefighters to limit the acreage burned while safeguarding the firefighters.

Airtanker dropping fire retardant in coastal mountains An air tanker makes a drop to protect a cabin on the 4,500-acre University of California Santa Cruz preserve near Lucia, Calif. The fire was only 100 yards from the structure. Photo courtesy of Richard Green/The Californian.
Setting back fires to burn up fuel main fire would use Firefighter Pat Williams uses a terra torch to set backfires along Tasahara Road in Los Padres National Forest. Controlled burns remove a forest fire's fuel and help restrict it. Photo courtesy of Richard Green/The Californian.
Firefighting crew from Arizona digs firebreaks A fire crew from the Hopi Reservation in Arizona digs fire breaks in the brush to help combat the national forest fire. Civilian Signaleers worked around the clock to support the Forest Service and fire crews with communications. Photo courtesy of Richard Green/The Californian.
Fire near Mira Observatory, coastal mountains Aerial photo shows some of the Los Padres fire's range, including proximity to Mira Observatory (bottom right of photo). On the left, plumes of smoke head skyward after the firefighters' aircraft makes a drop. Photo courtesy of Richard Green/The Californian.

A common technology thread in both the firefighting and Marine Corps exercise was an integrated-access/high-bit-rate digital-subscriber-line solution called the PairGain T1 Integrator from PairGain Technologies, Inc., of Tustin, Calif. (, which provided 24 phone lines to the temporary-headquarters location for both the firefighting effort and the Marines’ Signal exercise. In both cases, the solution performed flawlessly and provided voice quality comparable to regular dial-tone service.

The PairGain T1 Integrator, which integrates voice and data traffic onto a single T1 line, is marketed by PairGain under the terms of an original-equipment-manufacturer agreement with VINA Technologies of Fremont, Calif. ( (VINA markets the solution as the Multiservice T1 Integrator.) In supporting the firefighting effort and the Marines’ Signal exercise, the solution handled only voice communications.

FHL’s IT team provided and maintained 60 telephone lines to a camp located in a remote area of FHL, where the Forest Service set up to manage fighting the fire. Twenty-four of those lines were delivered via the integrated-access/HDSL solution: VINA/PairGain’s T1 Integrator.

The fire camp, known as the South Kirk Complex, was located in an area on FHL property that’s usually vacant ground. Local-exchange and long-distance telephone service demarks (ends) at FHL’s telecommunications building. Dial-tone on the installation is provided by a Meridian SL-1 switch from Northern Telecom Inc., which is linked to the local-exchange telephone carrier – Pacific Bell Telephone of San Francisco – via an OC-12 fiber-optic connection. The local servicing Pacific Bell office is located more than 27 miles away from the fort.

FHL’s DOIM civilian staff provide all telecommunications and networking support within the fort. Cellular-phone coverage at the fire camp was poor at best due to the mountainous terrain.

We also provided a direct Internet connection to the South Kirk Complex and 10 more telephone lines to a landing/takeoff area for helicopters located at Tusi Army Airfield within FHL. The volume of telecommunications and Internet traffic to and from the South Kirk Complex was staggering. The single-day high of faxes sent and received was around 15,000. And tens of thousands of incoming and outgoing phone calls were made daily.

Why were these numbers so high? At the height of the blaze, incident commanders were responsible for deploying nearly 1,500 firefighters as well as pieces of equipment such as bulldozers, tanker planes and helicopters. Also, they had to obtain the requisites, such as food and fuel, to keep this firefighting army in operation in the middle of a wilderness.

The Internet connection was especially helpful to incident commanders in obtaining weather and Geographic Information Systems information. Knowledge that the wind had shifted direction could cause firefighter deployment to a line that hadn’t been in danger. GIS information was crucial to safeguarding the lives of firefighters. GIS gives commanders information on the terrain, such as flat or hilly. Commanders then could determine if it was safe to send in smokejumpers, ground firefighters, etc. For example, a commander would never want to have smokejumpers parachute onto a hill near where fire was burning on lower ground. That’s because flame and smoke rises, creating unsafe conditions.

Providing communications capability to South Kirk

At the fire’s start, FHL’s IT team made available to the Forest Service seven phone lines over an 18-pair copper cable that tapped into the tactical-support loop serving the fort’s training areas. The South Kirk Complex was located 2,000 feet from a tactical loop. As the fire grew and more firefighting personnel arrived, we provided five more phone lines from the existing copper. Still, we needed more bandwidth.

The rural type of aerial telephone cable is present in training areas to provide telephone support to military units that train at FHL. The cable is deployed in several big loops around the fort. Hardwire is one of the two types of communications supporting units during training. Radio for emergencies is the other.

Our next temporary solution was a microwave communications system the Forest Service obtained from government inventory. The system, which has a solar-powered repeater system, provided 24 phone lines connecting to the fort’s telephone switch. A transceiver and multiplexer were set up at the South Kirk Complex and on a hill near the fort’s telephone switch. As the blaze continued to grow and more personnel and equipment were needed, it again became apparent that more bandwidth was needed.

We’d been investigating an integrated access/HDSL solution from VINA/PairGain to augment field communications provided to military units training at the fort. Due to the serious and immediate need, we decided to obtain the solution to support the firefighting effort. The solution, which included two VINA/PairGain T1 Integrators, delivered 24 more telephone lines to the South Kirk Complex.

We’d been looking at the VINA/PairGain solution for about a year. Groups from all branches of the service come to FHL to train, and several bring in their own tactical switches. But last summer, we were supporting a combined exercise that involved about 6,000 service personnel. Because we have limited copper going to the field, the 12 lines we provided met only part of the telecom need.

Our search included seeing a trade-magazine advertisement for the VINA product, the Multiservice T1 Integrator, then a check of VINA’s website. That, in turn, led to PairGain, which provides an OEM version of the product that supported standard T1 (DSX1) and HDSL formats.

HDSL delivers symmetric 1.544-megabits-per-second throughput over a dedicated, nonloaded two-pair copper loop. The South Kirk Complex had four pairs for primary and redundant circuits. One pair of circuits carried voice communications via the T1 Integrators. The other carried data and was available as an alternate path for voices in the event the other pair failed. Redundancy was important to us since 2 miles of the existing telephone cable loop was damaged by the fire and firefighting efforts, and had to be repaired quickly.

The 24 lines provided by the VINA/PairGain solution – along with the lines provided by the microwave and existing copper – brought the total lines serving the remote site to 60 phone lines. Now individual functions, such as food service, logistics and paramedics, no longer had to share phone lines.

One VINA/PairGain T1 Integrator was located in FHL’s telecommunications building, while the other was at the South Kirk Complex. It’s about nine miles between the two points.

Between the VINA/PairGain T1 Integrators, two PairGain repeaters were located about three miles apart. Telephone traffic – which included faxes and modem connections coming into FHL – went into the T1 Integrator in the telecommunications building, was multiplexed into a PairGain 231 line card, and was sent on its way to the South Kirk Complex. Traffic then was demultiplexed, with 24 phone lines coming out of the T1 Integrator at the South Kirk Complex.

For most of its distance, the telecommunications connection linking FHL and the South Kirk Complex made use of an existing telephone cable loop on fort property. We tapped into an existing loop and ran a line to the South Kirk Complex that terminated in the T1 Integrator.

A PairGain HDSL circuit was also installed at the South Kirk Complex to provide round-the-clock T1 (1.544 mbps) networking and Internet connection. We also deployed several 10BaseT hubs and coaxial cable, as well as Category 5 local-area-network lines, to network workstations within the South Kirk Complex. This allowed South Kirk users to take advantage of the high-speed data and Internet connections. The IT team greatly increased the speed at which GIS files, email, weather information and other data was transmitted and received. Previously the information had been transferred via 28.8-kilobits-per-second modems.

Helicopter base manager stays in radio communication Helicopter-base manager Jim Trowbridge relies on critical communications from the base to talk with helicopters flying over the fire.
Trailers abut steep hills of Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif. Mobile office trailers for the Hunter Liggett and Forest Service crew, with the steep hills of Fort Hunter Liggett right behind them.
Checking connections for morale call phones Telecommunications specialist Ron Johnston checks the fire camp's credit-card telephone, which was used for morale calls.
Information technology team, Fort Hunter Liggett The information-technology team at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., works together to provide communications for the Forest Service to fight the ninth-largest fire in 1999. Left to right: Keith Gray, IT manager; Terry Hensley, network administrator; Lee Reiswig, telephone installer; and Ron Johnston, telecommunications specialist.
Information management director with PairGain integrator IT manager Keith Gray with the VINA/PairGain T1 Integrator.

Quick delivery and installation

All the hardware components of the VINA/PairGain solution arrived in two days or less. The last piece of hardware arrived at 2 p.m. after being drop-shipped to FHL. We spent the next 10 hours bench-testing the solution.

PairGain technical support provided several hours of phone help to us. Kevin Asato, the PairGain technical-support representative, was instrumental in helping us get the solution up and running. He helped us get all the settings correct.

We had prewired the telecomm room’s T1 Integrator for the industry standard, a 25-pin Amphenol connection. Fortunately that’s what the product takes. We had the unit in the telecom room powered up and waiting for the other box at the South Kirk Complex.

About 30 minutes after concluding our lengthy phone call with Asato, voice traffic was flowing. The next morning, the solution went live. Thus, deployment took less than 24 hours. And the Forest Service couldn’t have been happier with the voice quality and reliability.

The voice quality provided by the VINA/PairGain boxes was excellent, and the solution’s uptime was 99.999 percent. The only service interruption had nothing to do with the T1 Integrators: we had to repair one cable splice that went bad. Other than that, there were no problems.

Although the VINA/PairGain solution is designed to handle voice and data traffic, we set it up only for voice due to their requirement and due to the tight time constraints. We know it can handle data traffic just fine.

The future

Based on the VINA/PairGain equipment’s performance during the fire and Marines’ Signal exercise, we’ll continue to use the equipment to support field-communications needs for future military exercises at FHL. One Signal exercise taking place in 2000 will involve more than 4,000 troops.

And if another fire breaks out in the Ventana Wilderness, the FHL IT team stands ready to help. If the Forest Service returns, it will find the technology ready to go. We’ve worked out an agreement with the Forest Service that includes putting more buried copper cable out in the field. Then we can clamp on the VINA box and backfeed through underground cabling within the compound.

Also, FHL’s DOIM is currently working on a project to interconnect its sister installation, Camp Roberts, Calif., and a satellite-communications station some 17 miles to the south via fiber-optic cable. This cable will provide a "superhighway" for telecommunications and networking support for units that come to FHL and Camp Roberts to work and train. The fiber-optic cable will also provide an instantaneous path to the other site in the event of failure of one of the commercial-telecommunications-link paths, and has an estimated payback of less than two years.

Lessons learned

We learned several lessons while supporting the Forest Service during the Hare Fire that likely will prove valuable to future exercises. The VINA/PairGain solution requires unloaded copper-cable pairs that aren’t always available. Having these readily available on all cables will facilitate ease of future installations. The initial installation, setup and upkeep of the installed system required a doubling of the normal work week, so the resultant overtime required approval and funding. But the devotion and commitment of our entire IT team proved invaluable to the mission’s success.

The VINA/PairGain T1 Integrator is a solution that can help provide voice trunk lines and data capability to all tactical systems in a remote base that are linked to the closest telecomm facility.

Mr. Gray is FHL’s director of information management, a position he has held for three years. He has more than 18 years of combined federal service, including four years on active duty as a combat-engineer officer. He is a graduate of University of Tennessee, where he studied engineering and economics.

Acronym QuickScan
DOIM – director(ate) of information management
FHL – Fort Hunter Liggett
GIS – Geographic Information Systems
HDSL – high-bit-rate digital subscriber line
IT – information technology
Mbps – megabits per second
OEM – original-equipment manufacturer

dividing rule

Back issues on-line | "Most requested" articles | Article search | Subscriptions | Writer's guide

Army Communicator is part of Regimental Division, a division of Office Chief of Signal.

This is an offical U.S. Army Site |
This is an offical U.S. Army Site |