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In August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey ripped through the state of Texas. The federal, state, and local response was massive. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) deployed the Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK) to support the complex communication and coordination needs of the multi-jurisdictional responders.
ATAK is one of those “game-changers" that dramatically alters the user’s understanding of the action in any given area of operation (AO). The users, known as “operators,” could be law enforcement, fire, EMS, personnel from other agencies, or even military. Instead of hearing intermittent radio transmissions from unknown operators at unknown locations while simultaneously engaging in an action themselves, these operators can now see who and where those elements are on mobile screen and even communicate with team members from different agencies and do it in a multitude of ways.
Most of the operators provided with ATAK in Texas had never used it before and many were skeptical. However, the ease of use, situational awareness, cross-agency communication and coordination capabilities of ATAK quickly won them over. Multiple organizations used it to coordinate rescues, respond to criminal activity, identify infrastructure breeches, and establish perimeters in danger zones, in addition to multiple other collaborative activities.
TSgt Kyle Evans with the 147th ASOS TACP/JTAC of the Texas Air National Guard was part of the Hurricane Harvey Joint Air Ground Control Team. He said that ATAK, “started on our end as a way to track my guys in the field. Over the past days use has blown up.” The stunning situational awareness and ability to react in real-time has operators like TSgt Evans wanting their HQs to incorporate it enterprise-wide because with ATAK, “I can move faster... way faster than they can.”
The success of ATAK in Texas prompted it to be deployed again when Florida was slammed by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Again, ATAK proved its worth in a crisis.
What is ATAK?
ATAK is a government-off-the-shelf app for Android smartphones. It is available to all government agencies for free. (There is a Windows version as well as an iPhone variant currently in development.)
The app uses GPS and maps to give the user a real-time view of the AO. This new situational awareness capability includes “Blue Force Tracking” to see where team members are (which reduces friendly fire incidents and helps with coordinating movements), “Red Force Tracking” to see where the bad guys are (obvious advantages), as well as terrain, weather, and other topographical elements.
Additionally, the app enables multiple types of encrypted data communication such as text and file sharing (including photos and video). These communications can be set for user-to-user, user-to-select teams, user-to-command post or user-to-entire force (even if they are from different agencies). This level of integrated communications was unavailable before ATAK.
ATAK was originally developed in 2010 by the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y. for use by U.S. Special Forces. It was tested through years of real-world use in combat situations, by more than 10,000 active war-fighters. After countless successful military operations, it has now been modified and adapted to fit the mission of other federal, state, and local agencies.
The utility of ATAK to provide tactical situational awareness was identified thru interactions between the Department of Defense (DoD) and personnel from federal agencies to include units within DHS. This has led to a grass-roots adoption of ATAK in small pockets of DHS but has not translated into broader enterprise adoption strategy…at least until now.
How is ATAK used?
ATAK enables collaboration across multiple components that were unable to communicate when on joint missions because they use different equipment, radio frequencies or encryption. Now, components such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Secret Service (USSS), U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), FEMA, state police, local police, and others can all be connected during operations. This is ideal for designated National Special Security Events (NSSE) such as the Super Bowl, Presidential Inauguration, summits with world leaders, large parades, etc.
Another example of ATAK’s capability was recently on display when it was deployed and used during a high-profile, multi-jurisdictional man-hunt where the fugitive was successfully apprehended.
In addition to the very large-scale missions mentioned above, ATAK is also extremely effective for small tactical response teams, such as those within CBP. According to Shawn McDonald, S&T Apex Border Situational Awareness Programs Manager,“Once our operators use ATAK in the field, it becomes immediately indispensable. Instead of operators requesting coordinates across the radio to determine where their team members are, they can see who and where they are in real-time.”
The app can be downloaded onto a phone (or tablet) and that phone can be handheld, strapped to a forearm, a thigh (if seated), or even mounted to the chest of a tactical vest so it flips down for hands-free viewing.
ATAK’s community source plugin architecture enables rapid integration of innovate technologies into its capability, which allows it to grow and adapt to the continually evolving technological market. In other words, ATAK was built to be flexible enough so when there is a new “must have” communication device or other technology, anyone can quickly write code enabling the use of that technology within ATAK. And better yet, the code is uploaded to the government ATAK repository so all ATAK operators can now use that capability for no additional integration cost.
This is a huge cost and time-to-market savings for all agencies using ATAK. One example is the emerging low-cost, peer-to-peer, radio communication devices seen at sporting stores and online. A simple ATAK plugin developed by one organization now enables all other government users to rapidly integrate and deploy these devices in cellular challenged or denied environments.
“In the field, whether on a mountainside or in an urban environment, the ability to see and track other team members on a map means better coordination and better safety,” says John Mennell, Assistant Chief with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Watching friendly dots on the screen move into position and then marking where the bad guys are by “putting a pin in it,” means faster and more accurate communication.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then taking a picture (or video) and silently transmitting that information to team members in an instant, must be worth a million words.
ATAK Training and S&T
Recently, a multi-agency training exercise was conducted in Detroit. Numerous federal, state, and local agencies came together for the simulated mission. It included over two dozen agents, multiple boats, helicopters, and fixed wing aircraft, as well as canine teams. The mock operation involved the sequential apprehension of multiple dangerous suspects in different locations. According to McDonald, “The training in Detroit was a tremendous success because it leveraged classroom learning and applied it to a practical exercise in an operationally relevant scenario.”
Of course, as with any tool, it is only as good as the user’s knowledge of it. A Homeland Security Intelligence (HSI) Special Agent/Special Response Team (SRT) member said in support of S&T’s focus on ATAK training, "The better the training, the more effective the tool can be for the operator."
S&T is taking a lead role in this vital area by coordinating a two-part training program. The first part includes class study on both the app set-up (how to download, configure, personalize, and connect to the proper server) and the app use (functions, capabilities, communication, and troubleshooting). Due to user requests, short YouTube videos have been recorded that demonstrate the most commonly used functions and features of ATAK. The second part of the training contains field drills, where the operators engage in simulated missions to practice using ATAK.
In parallel, S&T also collects invaluable data and feedback from system operators throughout the ATAK training. This information is being used to identify and prioritize changes to make ATAK more user-friendly and capable out in the field.
Additionally, McDonald noted, “S&T is investigating various communication methods to transmit data to and from the field, while adhering to DHS security standards. Results of the testing will directly support DHS component acquisitions for future communication devices.”
ATAK gives operators in the field a dramatically enhanced real-time situational awareness. It provides them with enterprise information sharing capabilities that will further increase safety, collaboration and mission successes. The HSI/SRT operator added, “ATAK is like having the connectivity of a command center at your fingertips.”