Army National Guard soldiers will soon be able to provide first responders with network and phone communications to keep them operational when local infrastructures stop working after a disaster, Army officials said Tuesday.

The Army is getting ready to field the new Disaster Incident Response Emergency Communications Terminal (DIRECT) tool suite to all U.S. states and territories where the National Guard operates, officials said in a release

"In a disaster situation, interoperable communications between the military, first responders and other [non-government] agencies is always critical," Maj. Gen. Timothy McKeithen, National Guard deputy director, said in the release. "Lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina [taught us that] it's all about timing — a few minutes, compared to an hour or days, in communicating is huge when it comes to your property, life and family members."

The Army is projecting fielding completion for 2021.

With this new tool, first responders can focus on their mission rather than having to worry about communication, officials said. The system will help with this by bridging different communication formats — radios, cell phone, internet telephone — so if one responder only has a radio and the other has a cell phone, the two will still be capable of communicating with each other between those two devices.

"That interoperability will allow us to move quicker, to act quicker and get things done," McKeithen said. 

The bridging capability "allows us to communicate from a radio to a cell phone, land line or another radio on a different frequency," said Maj. Gen. Garrett S. Yee, acting director of Cybersecurity Directorate, Office of the Chief Information Officer/G-6. 

The concept is designed to enable communications on a local level in a variety of contingencies. 

"In a domestic operation, whether it be a natural disaster or a CBRNE [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosives] event, DIRECT enables and enhances the communication capabilities between the first responders, the military, and local township, county, and state authorities," said Lt. Col. Joseph Yawn, deputy brigade commander for the Delaware Army National Guard's 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade. 

DIRECT also enables a reach-back capability — with the use of the WIN-T network, commercial wireless 4G LTE and commercial phone and internet —providing disaster responders the opportunity for information and leadership from experts anywhere in the world during a disaster, the Army said.