Texas National Guard and partner agencies orchestrate search and rescue exercise

rom left: Melchor Fernandez, Luke Schott and Jeff Keuper from Federal Emergency Management Agency's Texas Task Force 1, discuss a search and rescue mission with a joint terminal attack controller from the 147th Air Support Operations Squadron, 147th Reconnaissance Wing, based at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston, Texas
From left: Melchor Fernandez, Luke Schott and Jeff Keuper from Federal Emergency Management Agency's Texas Task Force 1, discuss a search and rescue mission with a joint terminal attack controller from the 147th Air Support Operations Squadron, 147th Reconnaissance Wing, based at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston, Texas, during an exercise at Canyon Lake, Texas, April 11, 2014. The joint, interagency exercise simulated emergency response following a hurricane, with members from the Texas Air National Guard, Texas Army National Guard, Texas Task Force 1 and Texas Department of Public Safety integrating to form a joint response team.

Story by 2nd Lt. Alicia Lacy


 CANYON LAKE, Texas – Canyon Lake was their stage.

 The joint team of the Texas National Guard, Texas Taskforce 1 and the Texas Department of Public Safety were the players. 

 The interagency team worked together in a search and rescue exercise April 11, 2014, at Canyon Lake, Texas, with each  entity taking charge of the roles they would play in a real-world emergency response situation.

 While members from the combined response element actively participated in the search and rescue exercise, representatives  from each component were at Camp Mabry, Texas, handling all command and control functions, viewing live feeds of the  action thanks to the set up of the communications Texas Air National Guardsmen from the 149th and 221st Combat  Communications Squadrons.

 This particular exercise was conducted over the course of a week, beginning April 9 and ending April 13, 2014, with Texas  National Guard units contributing their piece throughout the week, from aviation assets to communications capabilities. 

 When a natural disaster or an emergency situation arises, the governor calls all the involved agencies together to respond  and fall under the command of a lead agency.

 “You’ve got a lot of different agencies operating in the same area trying to complete the same mission and each agency  brings its own piece to the puzzle,” said Jeff Deane, a Texas Task Force 1 helicopter search and rescue technician and  Austin firefighter.

 “This is the first time we’ve put all these pieces together with a focus on the aviation side of things,” Deane said. “The piece  that the aviation brings to the search and rescue mission is very valuable. We can cover a lot of area in a short amount of  time, and we see a lot of things the ground crew may not see.”

In addition to linking all the aviation pieces together for the exercise, this was the first time all the interagency partners worked with Tactical Air Control Party members.

“When you think of TACP, you normally think of warheads on foreheads,” said a master sergeant with the 147th Air Support Operations Squadron, 147th Reconnaissance Wing. “Close air support is our bread and butter, but we’re broadening our horizons as a unit and really getting vested in the domestic operations.”

“(The ASOS element) was absolutely beneficial,” said Chief Master Sgt. Shawna Woods, Texas Air National Guard operations superintendent. “This was the first time Texas Task Force 1, Army aviation and ASOS had eyes on the same focus.”

Woods said the primary responsibility of the TACPs was to de-conflict the airspace, acting in the role of the Federal Aviation Administration. However, in addition to that, the incorporation of the TACPs was a way to integrate an added capability from the Guard.

The goal of the exercise was twofold: to exercise command, control and coordination of joint and interagency aviation capabilities in response to a hurricane in Texas, as well as conduct training in actual search and rescue, incident awareness and assessment, and air mobility response operations.

The search and rescue mission began with members from the 221st and the 149th Combat Communications Squadrons establishing communications that allowed for the delivery of incident awareness and assessment capabilities to the representatives in the air operations center at Camp Mabry, as well as facilitating communications amongst all the players involved to include the TACPs speaking to aircraft via radio communications. 

“We’ll provide the immediate situational awareness for the incident commander, and then we’ll also provide additional incident awareness for the senior military officials,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Sean Morrison, with the 221st Combat Communications Squadron. “Our package can be setup in 15 minutes or less and an additional 30 minutes for the (Texas Interoperable Communications Package) and from there, you’ll have a pretty robust communications system.”

The communications element was imperative to the seamless execution of the search and rescue exercise.
“(Communications) for command and control is very critical,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Juan Rodriguez, an RF transmission systems airman from the 149th Combat Communications Squadron. “The on-scene commander can communicate in a given area, but it also gives reach back.”

Network and radio communications set in motion the simultaneous command and control from the air operations center to the forces on the ground, as they were able to view a live feed of the action in real-time through visuals provided by the RC-26 aircraft flying overhead.

“Everybody has a part to play and what we do is we help them talk to each other,” Morrison said.

After communications were established, the TACPs setup the landing zone for the helicopters to load and unload personnel and “survivors,” and then members from Texas Task Force 1 and DPS set to the waters and geared up to launch the mission with players wading in the lake awaiting rescue.

This continued throughout the day, as rescuers hoisted survivors onto aircraft and delivered them back on land, rescuing 36 survivors total.

Ultimately, it was the scene of a well-executed mission to enable all agencies to communicate with each other as a piece flowed from group to group to create a synthesis of capabilities and collaboration, as each agency worked together to accomplish the mission. 

“The great thing about Texas is that we have a lot of partners, from the local partners to the state partners to the federal partners,” said Mike Miller, DPS Region VI Division of Emergency Management state coordinator. “We value the exercise for bringing everybody together for an event like this so in real world there is a coordination piece that has to go on…so it’s important to exercise and work through those issues today so in a real world event we can assist the citizens of Texas.”

“We value the partnership with the National Guard. They’re our neighbors, our community folks, our partners. They help us serve the citizens of Texas,” Miller added. 

“In hurricane events we look for our valuable partners in the Guard.”