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Special Tactics saves lives in Hurricane Harvey aftermath

ELLINGTON FIELD JOINT RESERVE BASE, Texas (AFNS) -- To assist in rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, 38 Special Tactics Airmen deployed to Southeast Texas to provide critical disaster relief.

Special Tactics Airmen with the 123rd and 125th Special Tactics Squadrons exercised their personnel rescue and global access capabilities to provid relief to those stranded by Hurricane Harvey. The 123rd is deployed from Louisville, Kentucky Air National Guard, and the 125th from Portland, Oregon ANG.

“It’s like the Nile formed in neighborhoods throughout the Houston area – we’re talking 4 to 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, the 123rd STS director of operations.

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

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 it for air traffic, and controlling that 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,” said the mission commander.

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

In the Special Tactics Operation Center, the Special Tactics team utilized the Android Tactical Assault Kit system, or ATAK, which is generally used to battle 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, a 123rd STS intelligence analyst. “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, this time as a tropical storm, the Special Tactics teams redeployed east to where the storm was expected to make landfall.

While the convoy drove, the intelligence team utilized live traffic cameras, 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,” the mission commander 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 total in the high 200s, but the Special Tactics Operation Center isn’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,” the mission commander 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 STS 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 an earthquake.