Guard units provide real-time video of flood damaged areas

  • Published
  • By by Tech. Sgt. Don Nelson
  • Wisconsin Air National Guard
Flying at 8,000 feet above flood ravaged Wisconsin, members of the Wisconsin Air National Guard with assistance from Air Guard units from Arkansas and Mississippi provided emergency management officials with "eyes in the sky" to help with disaster relief efforts.

Recent heavy rains have left Wisconsin rivers and lakes swollen and in many cases the surrounding areas flooded. With disaster relief efforts ongoing, Airmen from the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison worked with Airmen from the Mississippi Air National Guard's 186th Air Refueling Wing in Meridian, Miss., to bring an RC-26 capable of flying over a flooded area and send back live video and still pictures.

Along with technological assistance from the Arkansas Air National Guard's 314th Airlift Wing in Little Rock, Ark., the mission flew to more than 25 different locations across the state to provide on-the-spot assessments of the flood situation.

The specific mission was born from a similar mission Wisconsin Air Guard members undertook during Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. The Wisconsin Task Force Katrina also used an RC-26 to take photos of the bridges, highways and associated infrastructure in New Orleans. The Katrina mission required the RC-26 crew to land the plane to process the photos. The current mission in Wisconsin takes advantage of what's called a "Katrina Mod" which allows for instantaneous transmission of images and video without landing.

The testing phase of the modification was used in 2007 during the California and Florida wildfires. The mission in Wisconsin is the first, full-scale disaster assistance use of this technology.

Dubbed "incident awareness assessment," by aircrews, it is specifically designed to help coordinate on-the-ground relief efforts by providing real-time assessments of flooded areas. The imagery is sent to an antenna array that is temporarily set up on top of a building where officials coordinating the efforts can view the transmissions. The Wisconsin Joint Operations Center and the Wisconsin Emergency Operations Center, located within the Wisconsin National Guard Headquarters, take these instant images and video and combine them with other information to coordinate the relief and recovery efforts.

"With any emergency response and recovery, it is all about accurate information," said Brig. Gen. Don Dunbar, adjutant general of the Wisconsin Air National Guard. "With this type of aircraft able to stream live video to the governor holding a cabinet meeting or a county official meeting with first responders, they can see first hand exactly what's going on and figure out how to deploy their assets in the best way possible."

Wisconsin's National Guard is organized under a joint task force where disaster relief support is a combination of support from the Air and Army Guard units that are best used to suit the needs to the response. In this case, the Air Guard side was used to fly the mission and the collection of the images and video was done by both Army and Air Guard personnel working along side Wisconsin emergency management officials.

The RC-26 mission includes drug interdiction support for local and state law enforcement agencies. Wisconsin is one of 11 states that are home to an
RC-26 and supports many of its neighboring states including Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The counter drug mission combines the assets of both the Army and Air Guard and provides the operational preparation the crews need to do disaster relief missions, said Lt. Col. Stephen Dunai, 115th Operations Group and RC-26 program manager.

"The communications and the relationships we have built up over the years doing the counter drug missions in Wisconsin apply directly to emergency response situations," Colonel Dunai said. "This greatly enhances our ability to provide support whenever called upon."

While it is not unusual for helicopters to be used by officials for assessing damage over a particular area, the RC-26 offers some other advantages when there is widespread damage.

"The RC-26 is a fixed-wing aircraft which can get to the scene fairly quickly and can easily be redirected to other sites that officials would like to see," said Lt. Col. Dave Romuald, 115th Operations Group commander.

The Katrina and wildfire missions allowed the units who fly the RC-26s to tweak the systems to allow for the greatest ability to transmit live video, particularly when working with crews on the ground receiving the feed and transmitting it to officials who need it.

"The use of live video is new to our mission," said Lt. Col. Rick Berryhill, 186th Air Refueling Wing from the Mississippi Air National Guard. "The active duty has been using this capability for a while to support the war on terrorism and we are using some of the same concepts they use overseas."

Unfortunately, the bad weather in Wisconsin has generated a need to provide as much data to the emergency responders as possible, General Dunbar said, providing that data to those who can use it to help people is the primary goal of the mission.

"It is not about the particular cause of the event, whether it is mother nature or a terrorist threat; it is about all hazards response and this capability for homeland defense is irreplaceable," General Dunbar said.