Kentucky Air Guard Special Tactics Airmen save lives in hurricane aftermath

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ELLINGTON FIELD JOINT RESERVE BASE, Texas (WTVQ) – To assist in rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, 38 Special Tactics Airmen from the Kentucky and Oregon Air National Guard have been deployed to Southeast Texas to provide critical disaster relief.

Airmen with the 123rd and 125th Special Tactics Squadrons are exercising their personnel rescue and global access capabilities to provide critical relief to those stranded by Hurricane Harvey. The 123rd is deployed from Louisville, Kentucky, and the 125th from Portland, Oregon.

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“It’s like the Nile formed in neighborhoods throughout the Houston area – we’re talking 4-6 feet of standing water stranding people who can’t swim, families with children and drivers who are unaware of the depth of water on the roads,” said Maj. Aaron Zamora, director of operations with the 123rd STS and the mission commander.

On Monday, Special Tactics Airmen conducted a thorough assessment of airfields at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston, Texas, to assess the conditions of the runways following massive rains. The assessment opened the airfield as a central hub to provide relief to Houston.

Global access teams are trained and equipped to assess air strips and landing zones for fixed and rotary wing aircraft to land anywhere from a major airfield to austere, clandestine dirt strips in either permissive or hostile environments. Once the team assesses the airfield and determines feasibility to land air assets, they maintain the capability of opening the field to air traffic, and controlling the air traffic as it arrives on station.

Following the assessment, the operations center immediately deployed ground-based boat search and rescue teams to start coordinating with military and civil authorities who are conducting rescue operations.

“We hit the ground running, and immediately had to begin adapting,” Zamora said.

One of those adaptations was quickly learning how to leverage the power of social media.

In the Special Tactics operation center, the team members utilize the Android Tactical Assault Kit system, which is generally used to track forces during military missions. Intelligence analysts working remotely from Kentucky, Ohio and Florida, screen information found on social media platforms and smartphone applications and use their expertise to connect potential rescues with Special Tactics capabilities.

For instance, individuals in distress can update a phone application with their whereabouts and the situations they find themselves in. The intelligence team screens the information, applies a confidence level and sends the information to Special Tactics operators, real time, in the field.

“The area we’re working in is completely inundated with hundreds, if not thousands, of requests for rescue,” said Tech. Sgt. Brian Davis, intelligence analyst with the 123rd STS. “Since we’re such a small team with a specialized skill set, we find the people who are most in need and look for people who need specialized rescue.”

Davis recalled a certain post where an elderly couple was trapped in an attic due to flooding, which required the Special Tactics team to utilize confined-space rescue techniques.

In addition to personnel recovery mission sets, the Airmen in the field are being tasked with exercising command and control by opening and coordinating helicopter landing zones for supplies and medical evacuations, said the mission commander.

As Hurricane Harvey began to dissolve and make landfall for its second time on Wednesday as a tropical storm, the Special Tactics teams redeployed east to where the storm expected to make landfall.

While the convoy drove, the intelligence team utilized live traffic cameras and monitored the Texas Department of Travel website for flooded, underwater or impassable roads to make adjustments along their route of travel to reach their target.

“The team is currently right in the thick of the Port Arthur-Beaumont disaster areas, talking to circling Coast Guard and Air Force reconnaissance aircraft to get updates on the big picture,” Zamora said. “When we hit the ground, we went outside the box, started problem solving and realized we have all these different tools at our disposal to be more effective.”

The number of rescues is in the high 300s, but they aren’t worried about metrics, the mission commander said.

“We try not to get caught up in the numbers, and I told my team before we arrived that our mission is to go to Texas and do the most good by helping as many people as we can,” Zamora said.

The 123rd STS has extensive experience in disaster relief, to include Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where Special Tactics Airmen were credited with establishing and operating a helicopter landing zone on a highway overpass in New Orleans, helping evacuate nearly 12,000 residents. Then, again in 2010, Airmen with the 123rd were deployed to Haiti, setting up drop zones and helicopter landing zones, and providing airfield operations and air traffic control at Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport following a magnitude-7 earthquake.

 

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Tom Kenny joined ABC 36 News in June of 2001 as a General Assignment Reporter. A native of Peoria, Illinois, he graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications from Western Illinois University. He currently anchors ABC 36 News at 5pm, 6pm and 11pm. Tom has more than three decades of experience in broadcast journalism. He is the only broadcast journalist in Lexington television history to be honored with a national Edward R. Murrow Award. Tom was recognized for reporting on a story that gave a rare glimpse inside the secretive world of the Federal Witness Protection Program. He has won an Emmy Award for anchoring and another for investigative reporting, exposing the deceit and potential danger of online diploma mills. Tom has ten other Emmy nominations to his credit for investigative and feature reporting. He has won Associated Press Awards for reporting and anchoring. He has won two Addy Awards for excellence in promotional writing. Tom was the first broadcast journalist in Lexington TV history to be awarded the Silver Circle Award by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. It is one of the highest honors given by NATAS. It recognizes television professionals who have performed distinguished service within the television industry for 25-years or more. Tom was honored for more than his longevity, he was recognized for making an enduring contribution to the vitality of the television industry and for setting high standards of achievement. He was also recognized for giving back to the community as a mentor, educator and volunteer. Tom also has network broadcast experience in radio and television having worked as a sports reporter for ESPN, Sportschannel, NBC Sports and the Breeders’ Cup. He was also the studio host and halftime producer for CBS Radio Sports’ College Football Game of the Week and covered the NFL for One-On-One Radio Sports. Prior to joining WTVQ-TV, Tom was Vice-President of the Houston Astros Minor League baseball team in Lexington. He was part of the original management team that brought professional baseball back to the Bluegrass after a nearly 50-year absence. Tom has lived in Lexington since 1984. In that time, he has been heavily involved with dozens of charity and civic groups, with a special emphasis on helping Veterans. He can be reached at tkenny@wtvq.com. You can also follow Tom on Facebook www.facebook.com/TomKennyABC and Twitter @TomKennyNews. Just click on the links at the top of the page.