Aug. 26, 2009

Virginia Guardsmen test their ability to help state respond to hurricanes

By Lt. Col. Deb Magaldi
Virginia Air Guard Public Affairs

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Members of the Virginia Air National Guard took, not to the skies, but to their computers during the Virginia Department of Military Affairs' hurricane preparation and response exercise held June 15-19 at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach.

  Incident Awareness

During the hurricane response exercise, 192nd Intelligence Squadron members who worked in the geographically separated location got to spend time in the Joint Operations Center so they could see how their information was being used. Here Staff Sgt. Jennilee Gergets, Imagery Analyst, goes over information with Capt. David Lands, 192nd Intel. Squadron Director of Operations, while Senior Amn. Michael Green, Multi-Source Analyst, monitors information coming into the JOC.

Dozens of Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers, Virginia Air National Guard Airmen and members of the Virginia Defense Force gathered for Irish Rain – a large hurricane-response simulation exercise – designed to train and test the groups' planning, management, communications, coordination and interoperability capabilities.

Members of the 192nd Fighter Wing, more widely known as the first Air National Guard unit to fly the Air Force's F-22 Raptor, brought a new and increasingly important disaster-management and -response capability to the exercise: Incident Awareness.

"Incident Awareness involves gathering, researching and fact checking information from a variety of sources; analyzing that information and fusing it into a cohesive, useful product," explained Staff Sgt. Lynn Even, 192nd Imaging Analyst, for use by the Department of Military Affairs' Joint Operations Center and for civilian agencies under the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

"An exercise like this allows us to work directly with JOC (Joint Operations Center) staff members to determine what information we can provide that would be beneficial for them, what analysis is helpful and the best formats for presenting that information," remarked Lt. Col. Steve Swetnam, Virginia ANG Headquarters. "An exercise like this also helps us work through hardware and software connectivity issues.

"This was the first time this capability has been used in a Virginia National Guard exercise," Colonel Swetnam added. "In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and subsequent hurricanes like Rita and Gustav that ravaged Gulf Coast areas, the need for this capability has become a growing priority across the nation. This marks the first time that Incident Awareness is being used to support a civil mission in Virginia."

These 192nd Intelligence Squadron specialists normally provide military commanders with intelligence, imaging and analysis to support U.S. military operations in locations such as Southwest Asia.

However, in specific situations such as natural disasters, their expertise can be directed to gather, analyze and provide background and near real-time information and that can help all-levels of disaster preparation and response activities. Having accurate information and insightful assessments of evacuation routes, restrictions on vehicle movement, access to medical facilities and damaged public infrastructure can help commanders and coordinators make decisions more quickly. And it helps disaster responders on the ground, complete missions more quickly and safely.

In some cases they can check out unsubstantiated reports on events like stranded evacuees, flooding, fires and impassable roads and bridges.

This capability, normally used in combat arenas, has the potential to be of invaluable assistance on the homefront to provide near-real-time assessments to state agencies and leaders on a full range of crisis response scenarios: wildfires, floods, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, etc.

For this exercise, teams of intelligence analysts and communications and information technology technicians from the 192nd's Intelligence Squadron set up shop in the Department of Military Affairs Joint Operations Center and in a geographically separated location.  Initially their task was to provide the JOC with "pre-landfall" information and analysis.

After the hurricane made landfall, they worked on search and recovery assessments and initial damage assessments – to help military and civilian disaster responders as they conducted rescue and recovery efforts.

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