Regardless of the mission, it is the humanitarian services that the US National Guard have been called upon to serve in greater numbers during the past two hurricane seasons. While the National Guard serves as a reserve component of the US Armed Forces, the guard members must always be ‘ready’ and ‘there’ when called upon by their government to support state emergency managers. The National Guard has a variety of assets and capabilities to assist in life-saving efforts during any disaster, whether man-made or organically-manifested by Mother Nature herself.
In order to battle the kind of hurricanes that hover for days – like Harvey and Florence – the National Guard conducts an AAR assessment to determine the appropriate assets and training programmes required for the next hurricane season.
The 2017 hurricane season ensured that Texas-bound Harvey earned the title as the ‘most destructive natural disaster in the US’. The 2018 hurricane season delivered a similar disaster along the eastern US coast, where loss continues to compound as a result of Hurricane Florence.
Hurricanes Harvey and Florence proved to be quite the pair, leaving their indelible mark on thousands of Americans, their homes and work lives. A perilous pair of natural disasters with similarities, there’s no doubt, circling and hovering above the ground, generating massive flooding. Indeed, Harvey and Florence were true to their names: ‘blazing iron’ and ‘ruffled wrench’ respectively.
The inside track
Maj. Jordan A Boyd, US Army, Deputy, State Aviation Office (SAO) TXANG, served as a pivotal point of contact navigating assets, resources and communications during Hurricane Harvey. Brett Dixon, Programme Manager, Texas Task Force One (TTF1) and the Helicopter Search and Rescue Technicians (HSART) rescue swimmers, explained how, surprisingly, a hurricane like Harvey served to strengthen the TXARNG crew and the HSART teams.
Meanwhile, while Hurricane Florence hovered like a helicopter on the eastern coastline of the US, Lt Col Michele Harper of the NCANG explained the protocols applied during Hurricane Florence, along with CW5 Todd Woodard, Deputy SAO, NCANG, US ARMY NG who assisted in both Harvey and Florence SARs.
Aircraft and equipment assets
According to subject matter experts, noted Maj. Boyd, the 13-day siege on the Texas Gulf during Hurricane Harvey was the first time the National Guard used the Lakota for night-time rescues in Texas: “During Harvey, the National Guard crews flew both the Blackhawk and the Lakota, with each aircraft type serving specific purposes.” Maj. Boyd continued: “Traditionally, the National Guard deploys UH-60 Blackhawks for SAR missions, while the Lakota proved to be a valuable asset during Harvey as well, notably during night-time missions.” The night rescues during Harvey validated the value of the Lakota, with respect to the aircraft’s night vision system, he added. “We’re very proud of that. It was a great success.”
According to Dixon, the rescue hoist hooks used on all TXANG aircraft were recently upgraded to an ‘auto-locking design that is now safer and easier to manipulate’. And Maj. Boyd added that, although the UH-60 ‘Mike’ does not currently have a hoist system, the aircraft is currently in the Airworthiness process to ultimately retrofit the hoist system as an upgrade. “The UH-60M hoist process is a long-term solution,” explained Boyd. “This is an NG-specific responsibility, not an Active Duty issue. As such, the installation of any upgrades comes with staffing and emphasises challenges.”
Maj. Boyd added that the process includes a hoist Airworthiness Release (AWR), followed by testing and modifications of current fleet based upon priority (probably starting with the coastal states that will be hardest hit by the next hurricane season).
“Both the Blackhawk and Lakota will continue to be utilised during state-wide SAR operations day and night, knowing each airframe brings its own strengths and limitations to the fight,” he added. “We are currently maintaining NVG qualifications for our rescue personnel in both aircraft.”
Boyd further explained that light-utility helicopter (LUH) crews that have counter-drug experience, and UH60 medevac crews with overseas operational experience, bring extensive hours of ‘goggle flying’ to the SAR mission. “Spreading our capabilities over numerous airframes provides the flexibility to diversify our Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) response,” said Maj. Boyd.
Adapting to emergent needs
Operational plans are created to synchronise such operations, but leaders must be able to adapt to the situation as it develops
One National Guard member experienced both Harvey and Florence. “Each and every hurricane requires a specific approach based on the circumstances at the time,” said Woodard. He told AirMed&Rescue that every hurricane operation demands an ‘art and science’ approach in order to meet the requirements of the current emergency situation. “Operational plans are created to synchronise such operations, but leaders must be able to adapt to the situation as it develops,”
he said. “All National Guard aviation platforms provide capabilities distinctive to their particular area of operation, which become extremely valuable tools.”
During both hurricanes, both the TXANG and the NCANG crews used UH-72s, UH-60s and CH-47s to implement the specific operational plan, including SAR, Woodard added. “Wide-area searches, critical needs assessments, and flights and commodities movements into stricken areas were conducted,” he said.
Similar to the Texas TTF1-HSART, North Carolina’s HART consists of aircraft from the NCANG and NC State Highway Patrol, along with other aviation partners. “These teams train consistently throughout the year, honing their skills to prepare for any and all hurricane operations, as well as additional rescue missions, such as mountain and river rescues,” said Woodard. “Our J3 Domestic Operations section ensures preparedness throughout the year by updating force packages, conducting AAR and coordinating domestic training for all guard members,” he explained.
Knowing when to modify assets
One area that will always be a challenge is knowing how and when to increase and reduce forces, and it is always a discussion point during every event, noted Col Harper. “Florence was the first event that required the need to employ a Joint Task Force (JTF) during emergency conditions, so the Aviation Task Force piece of the puzzle was a challenge,” said Col Harper. “Each state employs aircraft differently. Some states give aviation operations more latitude, while other states are more restrictive.” She explained that having parameters in place before they arrive means that they can stay within those and are therefore not going outside of state norms, nor what is considered acceptable usage of a high-dollar reimbursement.
“The ability to expand and contract operations exponentially requires a complete understanding of the situation and the ability to address critical needs in a timely manner,” said Col Harper, who added that pre-planning aviation operations requires constant adjustments due to the ever-changing environment of a natural disaster. “Training in the area of expanding and contracting operations can be conducted during scenario-based hurricane training exercises, which we plan to do and expand into a SAREX, similar to prior training we attended in support of TXANG last summer,” she explained. These exercises can be tailored to the trainees and modified to ensure maximum training effect for all involved, said Col Harper.
After action review
The ‘after’ phase of any mission requires the analysis of data. “For the aviation team, we capture all the data – files, trackers, forms, org charts, admin – and digitally clean and store the information for historical purpose. More importantly, we conduct a thorough AAR with all ‘players’ in order to prepare for the next event,” noted Col Harper. “Secondly, we prepare future trackers, forms, etc. and have a new folder drafted within weeks, in preparation for the next event.”
Ground crews take a pivotal role in the ‘after’ phase for all disasters. Col Harper details that ground troops assist with the moving and the cleanup to restore a sense of normality, ‘as much as is possible’. “Our state effectively manages all resources,” she added, “so as soon as all roads are open for moving food, water, and people, then all aviation operations cease at that point.”
Drones as future assets
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are increasingly prevalent in disaster response, said Dixon. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Research and Development information (as cited on the agency’s website), research activities such as flight tests, modelling and simulation, technology evaluations, risk assessments and data gathering and analysis provide the FAA with critical information in areas such as Detect and Avoid, UAS Communications, Human Factors, System Safety, and Certification – all of which enable the Agency to make informed decisions on safe UAS integration.
“State and federal agencies are investing more in research, training, and certification,” added Dixon. “We have added a seat for a UAS Liaison Officer in the Air Operations Center to assist with subject matter expertise and coordination,” he added. Boyd commented: “With all the civilian UAS in the area of operations during a DSCA event, however, I do not foresee Texas integrating Ravens (SUAS) or Shadows (TUAS) in the near future.”
Photography provided by the TXANG.