News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

September 9, 2013

Groups prepare for disaster response

Air Guard, fire departments test infrared cameras, enhance methods for wildfire search and rescue

TERRE HAUTE — Rolling farm ground reclaimed from a bygone coal mining operation in Clay County serves as a good replica for a wildfire scenario from the western states.

It also has been a good location for the Indiana Air National Guard at Hulman Field to team up with the local Cory and Posey Township fire departments to test an infrared camera in preparation for a possible local disaster response.

The camera can look through smoke and haze and see a fire on the ground so a precise location of the flames can be relayed to the ground crew fighting the fire.

The handheld camera also has other applications — such as search and rescue — because it has daytime and nighttime capabilities that locate heat signatures.

The recent deaths of 19 firefighters killed in Arizona battling a wildwire was on the minds of those involved in the infrared camera test.

“Out west, there are thousands of acres on fire,” explained Staff Sgt. Kevin Arnett of the 181st Intelligence Wing. “If we are dropping fire retardant from a helicopter and the area is covered with smoke, we don’t know if it’s hitting the right spot. So the point is to pinpoint where to drop it.”

A bird’s eye view

The recent mission was to image the fires — one set on a large bale of hay and the other in a nearby pile of brush and timber — at altitudes of 500, 1,000, 1,500, 2,000 and 2,500 feet by flying a Blackhawk helicopter from the Shelbyville Army Guard to Hulman Field to pick up Air National Guardsman for the training.

“The fire is going to look like a blip,” Arnett said. “It’s not going to be obvious through the camera.”

But that information can be relayed to the ground team, which can map the fire and provide that information to the incident commander.

“The key is to get the information quickly,” said Maj. Craig Maschino, the on-scene commander who coordinated the ground effort with the local firefighters. “When we get the coordinates and share the location, then we can get that information to the firefighters so they can decide if they want to call in helicopters or get boots on the ground.”

Hopefully, a wildfire in Indiana will never spread as much as the blazes that are common in western states, but ongoing training will better prepare responders for the unpredictable.

“If we had it all figured out, we wouldn’t have lost 19 firefighters a few months ago,” Maschino said.

Jeremy Elwell of the Posey Township Fire Department said that having a bird’s eye view of the fire can be very beneficial to the ground team, especially during a dry season when grassfires and wildfires spread quickly. Many wildfires are started by human carelessness, such as discarded cigarettes or untended trash fires.

“Even last year, [when] we had a burn ban, we had 2,000 to 3,000 acres burned on DNR property near Staunton,” Elwell said as he stood by near a pumper truck during the exercise.

Posey firefighter Kelly Bussing said the exercise with the National Guard was a good team-building effort.

“These folks have been out here twice to help us with this,” he said.

Testing infrared capability

Located on the adjoining property of Jeff and Katie Spencer, John and Jenny Johnson, and Jim Jacobs, the controlled burn site was an ideal location for the 181st unit to test the IR capability. The testing could have occurred at the military’s Camp Atterbury, but the interaction with local assets needed to battle a fire would have been different.

“This is a big deal for us to be able to test so close to our facility in Terre Haute,” Maschino said. “This is definitely a capability we can use in Indiana. And, it allows us to get to know the local fire departments.”

While an infrared camera is not new technology, it is new for the Indiana Air National Guard to use one on a domestic mission to provide incident analysis and assessment to local first responders and incident commanders in the event of a disaster in Indiana.

A few weeks ago, the 181st was involved in a mock disaster training in Bloomington where a demolished building had “collapsed.” Using the Civil Air Patrol to provide eyes in the air, information was relayed to a ground team that responded to look for survivors and secure the area.

The infrared camera is expensive technology for the Air National Guard, said Maj. Frank Howard.

“There has to be a requirement to buy something,” Howard said, “so we haven’t had these cameras in the past. Now we have this new ability to add to our disaster response.”

The 181st Intelligence Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard has both a federal mission status and a state mission status that are well-defined and followed in the military.

The Racers, as they are known, converted from a flight wing to an intel wing in May 2008. The Racers’ mission is to provide multi-discipline intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information to U.S., allied and coalition military forces, government agencies and emergency first-responders across the full range of military operations.

The Racers provide assessments needed to enhance the battlefield picture, Howard said, as mission crew members provide immediate feedback to ground commanders and warfighters regarding the success of an operation and the impact combat operations had on their objective.

Crew members provide route reconnaissance to ground forces, aiding in alternative routes to avoid ambush locations and impassable terrain. They provide analysis to locate improvised explosive devices, and provide support to aid in the capture or elimination of enemy combatants.

Emphasis turns local

Domestic disaster response is also part of the training for the local Guard wing.

“Getting back to our state mission, now that the federal mission is winding down, disaster response is one of our primary jobs,” Major Howard said. “So we are taking skills we have learned since 2008 to apply that in Indiana to support folks.”

During the disastrous floods of 2008 in the Wabash Valley, the National Guard assisted using aerial surveillance from the Civilian Air Patrol to relay information to emergency management agencies in Sullivan, Clay, Knox and Vigo counties.

“That was part of our training,” Arnett said. “We’re now able to give that information to responders.”

In the long-term picture, Arnett said, the unit wants to be able to respond anywhere in the area to disasters such as a tornado, flooding or other environmental or manmade events that require a coordinated effort to assist citizens.

Howard said that the Intel Wing has civil engineers deployed to the Middle East in addition to its ISR operations at Hulman Field to support the federal mission of the war on terror. But they are also increasing their domestic capabilities, which has a huge impact for the Wabash Valley.

“We don’t fly jets out of here anymore,” Howard said, “but I can honestly say that the impact we make here on a state level, and on a federal level, is more than when we flew jets here. We have a bigger impact on the War on Terror, or current operations, as an intelligence wing than we ever had as a fighter wing, and also domestically as a response for disasters at home.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.

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