Texas guardsmen, first responders conduct aviation search and rescue exercise

Story By: Capt. Jessica Jackson

Posted on: June 16, 2016

Photo By Capt. Jessica Jackson | Multiple state and local agencies participated in this year's SAREX 2016. The search and rescue exercise helps first responders better coordinate with partner agencies to provide efficient and life-saving resources when needed. ‪(U.S Army National Guard photo by Capt. Jessica Jackson/ Released)
Photo By Capt. Jessica Jackson | Multiple state and local agencies participated in this year's SAREX 2016. The search and rescue exercise helps first responders better coordinate with partner agencies to provide efficient and life-saving resources when needed. ‪(U.S Army National Guard photo by Capt. Jessica Jackson/ Released)

AUSTIN, Texas — Helicopters buzzing overhead, first responders descending to save stranded victims — that was the scene at Camp Mabry in Austin as guardsmen and five state and local partnering agencies conducted a large-scale aviation search and rescue exercise, June 8, 2016.

Texas Military Department, Travis County STAR flight, Texas Department of Public Safety, U.S. Coast Guards – Houston and Austin Police Department came together in a joint effort to complete the exercise said Brett Dixon, program manager for Texas Task Force 1.

Every year, a different catastrophic event is put into the training. Each exercise provides Texas Military Department and local and state authorities the opportunity to offer mutual assistance to mock stranded victims.

This year’s scenario focused around a hurricane that produced record rainfall in Austin — causing widespread flooding throughout the area.
Partnering agencies responded on scene, within hours, to run through mock evacuations in preparation for when severe weather occurs.

“This exercise is a planned partnership between Texas Task Force 1, and mimics past events to make the training as realistic as possible,” said Texas Army National Guard Lt. Col. Troy Meuth, search and rescue director for Air Operations Center.

Several months of preparation and planning went into conducting this complex event including reaching out to the interagency partners and using lessons learned to help develop real-world scenarios and create a plan.

Flight crews within the different organizations also played a significant role in the exercise. 

“During the exercise I was the Air Mission Commander and pilot in command,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Pedro Vargas-Lebron, Texas Army National Guard. “My main responsibilities are ensuring the flight is safe for the mission we are doing. The crew in the back will do the rescues and my role is to ensure we can accomplish that safely.”

Along with providing realistic training, the exercise centered around synchronization of the Air Operations Center on Camp Mabry and the Joint Air Ground Coordination team located at the STAR flight hangar.

“We are using this opportunity to make sure we can communicate between agencies, making sure that when 911 calls come in that we can direct the appropriate asset or resource out to where they need to be to do the most good,” Dixon said.

In addition to improving life-saving skills, Meuth said this was also an opportunity for participants to spend a day doing something that matters. 

“The people who do this, including our interagency partners, are very passionate about what they do,” Meuth said. “It’s a very high-risk, but high-reward job.”

The annual exercise is in its third year and is a smaller component of the statewide Lower Rio Grande Valley hurricane evacuation exercise.

“During previous hurricanes, we realized with all the aircraft on scene, there was some confusion of roles and responsibilities,” Meuth said. By conducting this exercise, we can work that out ahead of time and develop capabilities so we’re able to do more with less.”

Through preparation and practice, these cooperating entities can become more confident in their ability to be there when they are needed the most.

“We’re able to respond to Texans when they’re in need,” Meuth said. “That’s what this is about; whenever there is a disaster or big event we’re able to quickly respond with the right assets to help our fellow Texans.”

Vargas-Lebron had a similar sentiment. “In the end it’s about supporting the local community. That is what makes the guard unique.”