Oregon Air National Guard Special Tactics Airmen Deploy to Florida for Hurricane Irma Relief
By Tech. Sgt. Brandon Boyd, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 11, 2017
PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. -- Members of the Oregon Air National Guard's 125th Special Tactics Squadron departed Sept. 8, to provide humanitarian support for Hurricane Irma relief in Florida.
This domestic support mission comes just five days after members of the same elite group returned home after providing assistance in Texas for Hurricane Harvey.
The 15 Oregon Air National Guardsmen flew from Portland Air National Guard Base on a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft en-route to Hurlburt Field, Florida. The Airmen are tasked with conducting rescue operations and reestablishing air fields that may become inoperable due to the hurricane.
"They are special operations forces, so these are individuals who are able to go into some pretty intense combat situations and are able to take some of those survival skills and put them into use in a domestic operation like surviving a hurricane and participating in rescue and recovery," said Col. Duke Pirak, Commander of the 142nd Fighter Wing.
Combat controllers are trained and equipped to survey, clear and open runways that would otherwise be unavailable due to ability for airfield managers to access. The teams are trained to conduct air traffic control in austere conditions for extended periods of time. This allows airlift to both bring basic necessities into the disaster zone as well as exfiltrate survivors from the area to safety.
"It's an absolute privilege for us to be involved in something like this. We are very proud of being America's dual use force. We're essentially deployed in place to serve state and local authorities but also to serve the president in the overseas fight," said Pirak.
Pararescuemen are the only DoD asset that is specifically-trained and equipped to conduct rescue and recovery operations. During Hurricane Katrina alone, pararescuemen conducted 2,500 documented rescues. They are typically deployed by hoist from a helicopter to help recover stranded survivors. Survivors of a natural disaster could be stuck inside their homes, attics or cars for days and hungry, tired, thirsty and in some cases, hypothermic and in need of medical treatment.
"They are special operations forces, so these are individuals who are able to go into some pretty intense combat situations and are able to take some of those survival skills and put them into use in a domestic operation like surviving a hurricane and participating in rescue and recovery," said Pirak.
Among the equipment being used for the mission are three inflatable zodiac boats with submersible engines, fuel, water and chainsaws. The boats are highly-mobile and roll up and pack into the back of a truck, can be inflated once on site, and conduct rescues within 30 minutes of arrival. These boats can also be configured to air-drop, if necessary, to access remote locations where there are no roads.
The group will be deploying with six passenger fleet trucks; military vehicles capable of going into high water situations much more readily than most civilian vehicles. These can be uses for ground mobility and for rescue ops.
"They'll be responsible for a number of things out there. Most notably to go down and establish safe airfield operations, to participate in air traffic control and to participate in rescues themselves," said Pirak.
All military members will be outfitted with gear that will allow them to operate in a wide range of conditions and geographical locations. In a situation with flooding, it's critical to have proper personal protection from possibly highly-contaminated water. Members of the 125th plan to employ a dry suit that prevents the water from getting next to the skin.
Whenever conducting search and recovery operations, one of the primary concerns is the safety of the servicemember even as they are helping others.
"I'm unbelievably proud of all that are participating in this operation and also very thankful for the incredible support of the rest of our organization at home to get them ready to go. I'll be praying every night that their operations are safe and effective and that we get them back home as soon as possible," said Pirak.