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Army to Implement Virtual Family Readiness Groups

By Margaret McKenzie
Special to American Forces Press Service

ALEXANDRIA, Va., Aug. 5, 2005 – An Army program on the World Wide Web to support and improve how information is passed to families when soldiers are deployed will make its debut Oct. 1.

Army officials said they are trying to meet the needs of today's Army Expeditionary Force by improving the methods by which soldiers communicate with their families.

"The virtual Family Readiness Group is designed to replicate the major components of FRGs, but in a virtual context," said Jay M. Burcham, chief of the Deployment and Mobilization Readiness division for the Family Programs directorate at U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center here. "This Web system is not just a Web site," he said. "Soldiers downrange in Iraq, Korea or wherever they are deployed will be able to communicate with families around the world by logging into this system. The virtual Family Readiness Group Web system will use technology to move today's FRGs into the 21st century to meet the demands of the Army's Expeditionary Force."

The initiative began in June 2004 when CFSC, in support of the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea, created a virtual FRG to reach out to families of soldiers who would be deployed. Most soldiers deploy as individual replacements to Korea, which basically is a stable environment and communication with family members is routine, Burcham said.

Prior to the vFRG, the families' need for support was addressed by the 'waiting families' program that Army Community Service operates. Families also received support from their previous unit's physical FRG.

With the war on terrorism things changed. Soldiers were being deployed from Korea to Iraq, making communication with families difficult. And families were reading and seeing stories on the news of bombs going off in areas where their soldiers were. "To ease the added stress placed on soldiers' families, the 2nd Infantry Division provided up-to-date command information as well as the capability to download photos, send newsletters and organize families by location and unit," Burcham said. "This was a new concept to take the physical FRGs and turn them into a virtual context."

The development and fielding of the vFRG for Korea and Iraq was completed in five weeks by DefenseWeb Technologies in San Diego.

"The overall purpose of the vFRG supporting soldiers deploying to Korea and Iraq was to provide a Web portal for official and unofficial information between the brigade, soldiers, and families," said Tonya Bowers, Army program manager at DefenseWeb Technologies. The brigade now had the means to communicate with the families of deployed soldiers, Bowers added.

Follow-on development built functions to automate the capabilities of today's physical FRGs. These capabilities include instant messaging, forums and discussion groups, post cards, and file and document sharing.

The final phase of the program broadens what was developed for the 2nd Infantry Division, and provides training, outreach and support across all three components of the Army: active, Guard and Reserve. When released for use by units, it will feature a unit vFRG locator, a kids and teens area, a phone tree organization chart, emergency family plans, blogs, a training tracker and metrics for the unit commander to determine the state of family readiness, FRG leader forums content, and more.

The site also will provide a single location for users to obtain news and updates relating to FRGs and their unit. Users will be able to make updates to the phone tree and e-mail distribution list for rear detachment commanders and FRG leaders to use for mass communication to soldiers and families.

Users of the site will first have to register and be authenticated by command-level administrators. This feature is very important to unit commanders concerned with maintaining operational security of the information they provide to families, Burcham said. "After they have been authenticated, users can go into the system, join their unit's virtual FRG, and update the information in their registration file especially if they are changing duty stations," Bowers said.

"There are many benefits to using the vFRG system", he added. "Members of the Army Reserve and the National Guard see this as an answer to the communications issues they have to deal with because they are geographically dispersed. Families of mobilized individual ready reservists will be able to join the vFRG of the unit their soldier is deployed with."

Members of the National Guard emphasize that they see this as a great way to enhance family readiness, Burcham added. He said it gives them the capability to maintain an FRG and communicate with their FRG members on a year-round basis, rather than just during deployments.

"This vFRG allows them to stay organized throughout the year with a known place where people can log in and communicate without the worry and expense of bringing families into Reserve or Guard headquarters, which could be 100 miles away," Burcham said. "It is not designed to replace the existing physical FRGs, but to enhance them," he noted.

To support the upcoming start of the system, a waiting list area where units can sign up to establish a virtual FRG has been added to The www.armyfrg.org Web site.

(Margaret McKenzie is assigned to U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center public affairs.)

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