Texas State Guard Maritime Regiment conducts drill, locates downed aircraft
With ’go-bags’ at the ready all hours of the day and night, and dedicated members prepared to drop their daytime jobs for however long it may take, two hours is all it takes to get the Texas State Guard mobilized in the event of an emergency.
Saturday's drill at Lake Houston’s Anderson Park, the site of the Houston Police Department Lake Patrol in Huffman, took six months of planning, but the scenario was all too real as more than 60 men and women in fatigues and police garb swarmed the shore line and waters of Lake Houston in search of the remnants of a downed Air Force drone plane.
“This is a joint operation between the Texas State Guard Maritime Regiment, the Texas Air Guard, and the Galveston Police Department,” said Solomon Cook, public information officer and petty officer in the Texas State Guard Maritime Regiment 1st Battalion, locally known in his role as Humble Independent School District chief of police. “The scenario is that an Air Force aircraft has crashed into Lake Houston and now we’re attempting to recover the plane and any debris. We actually sank parts of a plane in the lake.”
While divers conducted a side-by-side search of the 58-degree waters, a 3-acre area flanked by a peninsula and far off from civilian fishermen and jet-skiers, Galveston PD Marine Division officers used a side-scan sonar to map the bottom of the lake and pinpoint objects possibly related to the crash. The aircraft debris hidden on the lake bottom was donated by the Lone Star Flight Museum.
“We can see items down there and send divers to determine if it’s the debris we’re looking for,” said John Courtney with the Galveston PD, adding that the $3,000 sonar equipment was only recently purchased with funds raised through DVD sales of Hurricane Ike footage. “In Galveston, we plan on using the equipment to locate bodies, vehicles, sunken vessels, and large pieces of evidence. We get about six to 10 calls like that a year.”
Senior airman Scott Hart has taken up his post on the pier. His public announcement system, a medium-sized loud speaker that generates nearly 40 pre-recorded ultra-loud audio files, can be heard across the lake at homes two miles away.
“We can use this equipment to warn ships, vehicles and people away to keep them from interfering with our mission and for their own safety,” Hart explained. “It can also be used during times of civil unrest, when we might be dealing with a large crowd.”
Also assisting in the search for debris are Charles Ashton and his crew. As a member of the Columbia Center, a regional geospatial service center affiliated with Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Ashton’s job is to generate maps of the area utilizing GIS and GPS - onsite.
“It’s very important to know where things are and to put them in a spatial setting so the commanders in control have all the information they need to make decisions while the event is going on,” he said. “We make the maps right here, in a trailer, with Air Force equipment. We’re completely mobile and self-contained. We have our own power, our own data, and within 10 to 20 minutes, we can be fully operational.”
As Ashton maps the terrain and Courtney monitors the lake bottom, Sgt. Raymond Winkler of the 447th Air Support Group Texas State Guard Security Forces instructs his team to keep onlookers at bay, protect communications equipment and search the ground for aircraft debris during the search and rescue/recovery mission.
“Our team performs security around the perimeter of the scene to prevent unauthorized persons from coming in and picking up souvenirs, since it would be sensitive materials,” he said. “We also protect our assets to make sure it doesn’t walk off. Our airmen come out and we set up the search pattern. We walk that search pattern and any debris we might find is marked. We enter everything in the computer and use the GIS/GPS system to lay out a debris field.”
The crackle of the radio is constant, and the orders come in quick succession. Actors pose as civilians trying to breach security; two young girls are missing their father. The scenario is interspersed with many variables.
“Finding a body, for example, will get the chaplain involved,” said Wayne Hogard, commanding officer for the TMAR 1st battalion. Injuries are also part of the scenario, as are missing persons, and bring out the medical team. “We try to get as many people involved as possible.”
John Hesse, the training and operations officer for the 1st Battalion TMAR, said the planning of the drill involved covering every detail from organizing an incident command system, communicating with the national emergency and military emergency management systems, to ensuring civilian safety and plotting activities.
“The idea is to overwhelm the teams and see how they act under stress,” he said. “The better they train now, the better they will perform when an emergency actually happens.”
NO WEEKEND WARRIORS
Cook said some people may think of the Texas State Guard as “weekend warriors,” but nothing could be further from the truth.
“We are trained professionals,” he said. “And even though you may have a combination of people who work in law enforcement, engineering, or as chemical operators, we all bring our abilities and talents to the table in the best effort of helping our state.”
The cooperation among agencies was inspired by the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003, when the shuttle disintegrated over Texas shortly before it concluded its 28th mission during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.
“The Columbia disaster was a good guiding force on how things like this need to be done,” said Hesse. “We expanded on that process, created some policies and procedural system on how to get flight plans, utilize the algorithms the Columbia Center has, use information about air speed and altitude to figure out where the aircraft parts should be.”
Hogard said Texas State Guard members serve in a volunteer function until, or unless, the governor of Texas gives orders to deploy the force. Beginning in May, TMAR will be called upon to assist the coast guard, beefing up numbers.
The regiment, Cook said, communicates via e-mail and cell phone. Each member is in possession of a primary and secondary cellular phone. Members are also required to keep a ‘go-bag’ handy at all times, filled with three days worth of supplies, including food, water and clothing.
“We are part of the Texas military system. We are a recognized state agency and we have a monthly drill and training, like the reserves or state guard units,” Cook said. “When an individual decides to participate it’s at least a one-year commitment, and if they have no prior military experience they undergo training. They’re not just handed a uniform.”
Cook said monthly meetings and drills are held at the armory in LaPorte off Spencer Highway. Upon signing up for the Texas State Guard, prospective members are given a choice of participating in the Texas Air Guard, the Texas Army, or TMAR (Texas Maritime Regiment).
Cook, who has served as Humble ISD chief of police for about 6 years and worked for the Humble Police Department for 13 years prior, said he had no former experience in the military when he joined TMAR.
“Personally, I got started through friends,” he said, “wanting to do more to serve our state.” no former military. about 6 years cop, humble 14 years.