Fewer devices, more automation and a better interface would help fight ‘alert fatigue’

TAMPA, Fla. — Special operations communicators receive so much information that they’re beginning to experience what one expert calls “alert fatigue,” putting them in danger of making fatal mistakes.

In response, US Special Operations Command is asking industry for more capabilities that involve less gear and simpler user interfaces.

Cyber, computing and communications experts spoke May 19 at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Florida, echoing concerns about the flood of information coming at special forces and calling for solutions.

In some ways, the “alert fatigue” is a byproduct of technological development and mass data gathering techniques, said Mark Taylor, who serves as the command’s chief technical officer.

But there’s a cost.

“We cannot put these people in jeopardy of alert fatigue in which case they now get one of another 100 blips that might have been the one that tells them they need to hit this house and not that one,” Taylor said.

That means less gear, fewer processes, more automation and a simpler user interface, experts agreed.

“I think as technology grows, our communicators get more and more inundated with more technology,” said Army Sgt. Maj. Matthew Jacobs, the senior enlisted adviser to SOCOM J6.

He and others noted that automating some of the many tasks of a special ops communicator could reduce that mental burden, and that less gear would reduce the physical burden.

“I think weight is a huge issue,” he said. “It all goes on somebody’s back.”

In a separate panel, Art Coon, deputy program executive officer for SOCOM’s command, control, communications and computers office, provided an example of that physical burden.

Under their tactical communications portfolio alone, just taking into account radio technology, operators carry the legacy hand-held, man-packable radio, another hand-held radio device for specific frequency work, and the next-generation high-frequency hand-held, man-packable radio.

But there’s been progress, Coon noted: A capability once provided by a 78-pound radio system and carried by the AH-63 Apache helicopter is now available via a tactical hand-held device.

To ease the cognitive load, operators need a way to effectively use multiple waveforms and data systems. A radio integration system allows for one tactical operations center to merge line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight devices, talk to all systems, and push data over a single network using broadband satellite communications, Coon said.

That’s supported by satellite-deployable nodes, or broadband satellite communication terminals that can connect with the tactical local area network, connecting commanders at a major installation or in the United States directly to an operational network in the field.

And for contested environments, Coon said, a system called SCAMPI serves as “our version of an [internet service provider].”

SOCOM has those devices “scattered globally” to move data to forward-deployed troops, I have added.

Operators must also have the ability to quickly grab and go with their hardware and data, Coon said. “I should be able to pick up my laptop or my workstation in the garrison environment, jump on a plane, fly to wherever, get off that plane, and have the connectivity on the services I need wherever I’m at.”

But the secret and unclassified systems don’t work as well together as they should. SOCOM’s chief information officer, Joe Tragakis, said that’s because there are too many machines to do a basic task.

He’s currently looking for a way to allow an analyst to simultaneously search for data on both the classified and unclassified networks on a single machine, “as opposed to the current practice of getting four, five or six different machines to do it.”

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.


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