Wisconsin National Guard provides real-time video of flood damaged areas

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Don Nelson
  • 115FW/PA
Flying at 8,000 feet above flood-ravaged Wisconsin, members of the Wisconsin National Guard with assistance from Guard units in Mississippi and Arkansas provided emergency management officials with "eyes in the sky" to help with disaster relief efforts.

Recent heavy rains have left Wisconsin rivers and lakes swollen and in many cases the surrounding areas flooded. With disaster relief efforts ongoing, the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison worked with the Mississippi Air National Guard's 186th Air Refueling Wing to bring an RC-26 from Mississippi that could fly over a flooded area and send back live video and still pictures. With technical assistance from the Arkansas Air National Guard's 314th Airlift Wing, the aircraft flew over more than 25 different locations across Wisconsin to help provide on-the-spot assessments of the flood situation.

The Mississippi plane was provided on short notice as a substitute for Wisconsin's own RC-26, which is currently deployed in the Global War on Terror.

The specific mission was born out of a similar mission Wisconsin Air Guard members undertook during Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Wisconsin Task Force Katrina used an RC-26 to photograph the bridges, highways and associated infrastructure in and around New Orleans. The Katrina mission required the RC-26 crew to land the plane in order to process the photos, but the current mission in Wisconsin takes advantage of a "Katrina Mod" that allows for instantaneous transmission of images and video.

The modification was tested in 2007 in support of the California and Florida wildfires. The Wisconsin floods mission is the first full-scale use of the technology in a disaster.

Dubbed "incident awareness assessment," by aircrews, it is designed to help coordinate on-the-ground relief efforts by providing real-time assessments of flooded areas including highways, bridges and dams. The imagery is sent to an antenna array that is temporarily set up on top of a building where officials coordinating the efforts can view the transmissions. The Wisconsin Joint Operations Center and the Wisconsin Emergency Operations Center, located within the Wisconsin National Guard Headquarters, take these instant images and video and combine them with other information to coordinate the relief and recovery efforts.

"With any emergency response and recovery, it is all about accurate information," said Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Don Dunbar, the adjutant general of Wisconsin. "With this type of aircraft able to stream live video to the governor holding a cabinet meeting or a county official meeting with first responders, they can see first hand exactly what's going on and figure out how to deploy their assets in the best way possible."

Wisconsin handles disaster relief jointly, with a combination of support from Air and Army Guard components and civilian agencies. In this case, the Air Guard flew the mission and imagery was received and used by both Army and Air Guard personnel working closely with Wisconsin emergency management officials.

The RC-26 mission includes drug interdiction support for local and state law enforcement agencies. Wisconsin, as one of 11 states that are home to an RC-26, supports neighboring states including Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The counter-drug mission combines the assets of both the Army and Air Guard and provides the operational preparation the crews need to do disaster relief missions said Lt. Col. Stephen Dunai, 115th Operations Group and RC-26 program manager.

"The communications and the relationships we have built up over the years doing the counter-drug missions in Wisconsin apply directly to emergency response situations," said Dunai. "This greatly enhances our ability to provide support whenever called upon."

While officials commonly use helicopters in assessing damage over a particular area, the RC-26 offers advantages when there is widespread damage.

"The RC-26 is a fixed-wing aircraft which can get to the scene fairly quickly and can easily be redirected to other sites that officials would like to see," said Col. Dave Romuald, 115th Operations Group commander.

The Katrina and California wildfire missions allowed RC-26 units to tweak the systems for the greatest ability to transmit live video, working with crews on the ground who receive the feed and transmit it to officials who need it.

"The use of live video is new to our mission," said Lt. Col. Rick Berryhill, 186th Air Refueling Wing from the Mississippi Air National Guard. "The active duty has been using this capability for a while to support the war on terrorism and we are using some of the same concepts they use overseas."

Unfortunately, bad weather in Wisconsin has created a need to provide as much data to emergency responders as possible, Dunbar said, and providing that data is the primary goal of this mission.

"It is not about the particular cause of the event, whether it is Mother Nature or a terrorist threat; it is about all-hazards response, and this capability for homeland defense is irreplaceable," Dunbar said.