The Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron is regularly tasked to perform humanitarian missions. This year’s onslaught of hurricanes was no different for the elite unit.
“We have a lot of unique capabilities in our wing which allow us to respond effectively during [these] events, including pararescuemen, combat controllers and a contingency response group — a unit whose sole reason for existence is to rapidly establish airlift hubs in areas affected by natural disasters or other contingencies,” Col. David Mounkes, the 123rd Airlift Wing commander, said in a statement. He oversees the the 123rd STS.
Mounkes said he was pleased with the airmen’s response to the three major back-to-back storms of the past hurricane season.
Part of that response, which Mounkes characterized as “unprecedented,” came from the 123rd’s ability to adapt to non-traditional command structures.
The military chain of command is very directive, “from the top down in a deployed environment and especially a persistent battlefield environment,” Tech Sgt. Brian Davis, an intelligence analyst assigned to the 123rd, told Air Force Times.
“But when you have something like a hurricane or a natural disaster, I think it’s difficult to morph that into a domestic situation where you need to respond very quickly and with a lot of different players,” Davis said. ”We caught on quickly that the military process was slower to react and we were able to find a lot more information through open-source channels.”
During Hurricane Harvey, one important open-source channel of information the team used was social media, and not Facebook or Twitter, either.
The airmen found a walkie-talkie phone app called Zello, based out of Austin, Texas, already in wide-use by locals. The app broadcasts various channels in which users can speak based on their geographic location.
“Anyone can join these chat channels and most of the bigger ones would have a moderator in it who would sort people out. But you would have people come up on the chat and give their situation, location and what they needed,” he said.
As special tactics operators on the ground scoured for survivors in the hurricane wreckage, they were fed information and coordinates by intelligence analysts sifting through those channels in an operations center, Davis said.
“The downside is there’s a lot of extra information. There’s a lot noise,” he added. “So, there’s a lot of vetting and processing that we had to do on our end to get accurate and timely information to our guys.”
Because the channels were geographically sorted, analysts could passively listen to channels in the vicinity of rescuers in order to advise them on the location and status of a potential victim.
Listening in on channels also helped the team send their operators to areas that weren’t being adequately served by other rescue elements.
“That was big for us, but it wasn’t as big for the other U.S. relief operations,” Davis said. “With Houston, it was kind of unique because people still had power. The cell towers were still up. It was very easy for people to communicate even though they were in dire situations.”
Another tool the airmen found in their open-source kit was a pop-up website called HoustonHarveyRescue.com, Davis said. The website used an interface styled after Google Docs where users could post their location and status.
“One thing I’m proud of is how, with such a small team, we were able to adapt so quickly to the social media landscape and find new tools we had never used before and make them work ... not only to get more rescues, but to get our guys from point A to point B,” Davis said.
In one instance, analysts at the operations center discovered that traffic cameras in the city were still live and working.
“We were blacked out on satellite and aerial imagery because of the storm and our guys were asking for information,” Davis said. “We found out we could go online and find these traffic cameras and we were able to actually find routes for our guys, tell them where flooding was and where it was safe to cross.”
Adapting to the ever-changing demands of the situation with various open-source tools was key to the group’s success, a fact not lost on the mission commander, Maj. Aaron Zamora.
“We hit the ground running, and immediately had to begin adapting,” Zamora said in a news release. “We went outside the box, started problem solving and realized we had all these different tools at our disposal to be more effective.”
Next time, Davis hopes to know more in advance by “putting together an operations cell where the analysts who did it this past year can lead the situation.”
“Then we’ll pull in other volunteers from the squadron, if they don’t have another role, to help vet the huge number of people who need rescue,” he added.
The 123rd Special Tactics Squadron has a history of responding to disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Haiti after the earthquake in 2010. So it isn’t a question of whether they’ll need to respond to another disaster, but when.
“Next time it’s not going to be Houston and there may not be traffic cameras but there will be something else, so it’s on us to figure out what is out there, what tools are available, and adapt,” Davis said.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.