EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
As Hurricane Irma barreled toward the state’s coast, 96th Test Wing Airmen made preparations to house more than 300 Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel.
Hurricane relief agencies identified Eglin as an intermediate staging base due to its location, logistic capabilities and ability to handle large numbers of personnel. On Sept. 8, a FEMA task force made up of urban search and rescue teams from California, Nebraska and New Jersey began to arrive here.
“This strategic prepositioning of FEMA assets enabled critical life-saving search and rescue capabilities to be closer to the areas expected to be impacted by Hurricane Irma to reduce response time for those in need if called upon,” said Col. Jade Nordstrom, 1st Air Force emergency preparedness liason officer. “This interagency interdependence is a hallmark of federal, state and local efforts to make recoveries from natural disasters much more successful."
As the emergency operations center here prepared to handle local impacts from Irma, the base commander gave the order to support FEMA. The base began to receive more than 360 FEMA members, 13 rescue canines, as well as customs and border patrol agents along with their equipment.
“The opportunity to provide support to FEMA enabled our personnel to put many of their deployment readiness skills to use right here at home,” said Col. David Willcox, 96th Mission Support Group commander. “In a very short time we shifted from preparing to evacuate and close the base to receiving and caring for several hundred FEMA professionals.”
The vetting of these personnel for base access and the sweep of 80 tractor trailers, buses and passenger vehicles kept the 96th Security Forces Squadron busy through the night. The logistics readiness and force support squadrons set up 24-hour operations to bed down and feed personnel as they arrived, according to Maj. Jennifer Mack, 96th Force Support Squadron commander.
The 96th MSG’s finance and communication squadrons worked with the 96th Civil Engineer Group to monitor and manage logistics requests to ensure the staging areas met FEMA’s needs to successfully carry out disaster response operations.
The main fitness center became FEMA’s operations hub. No room was spared. The basketball court housed 280 personnel. The rescue dogs and their handlers were accommodated in the racquetball courts and additional rooms were used for command and control operations. An additional task force of 80 personnel was staged at the old Oak Hill Elementary School.
Base personnel were supportive of the task force from the moment they arrived.
“The base commander was here with his wife the first night and heard we needed dog crates. Thirty minutes later, we had military working dog crates for our dogs,” said Alice Holmes, canine coordinator for New Jersey Task Force One. “Not only did we not have to unpack and repack the limited number of crates we had in the event we had to make a quick departure, it gave our dogs a place for down time away from all the activity.”
The task force personnel found the installation exceeded their needs. They had plenty of space and access to base facilities to train, said to Holmes.
While the task force awaited mobilization orders, they took advantage of the downtime and the facilities to brush up on their operation components, that are search, rescue, planning, logistics, hazardous materials and medical.
The co-location of three of the four urban search and rescue teams in the gym allowed them to share valuable training opportunities and promoted camaraderie.
“We have teams from New Jersey, Nebraska and California who have never met before. Now, they trained together, swapped secrets, and shared equipment information,” said Mark Gose, personnel manager and task force leader for NJ-TF1. “It has been a win-win for us.”
Throughout their stay, the support staff went above and beyond, according to Gose.
“Every time we made a request the fitness center team would tell us it was their mission to help us accomplish ours,” he said.
The feeling was mutual as the FEMA teams demobilized and headed back to their home stations Sept. 13.
“The teams that arrived at our gates were exceptional professionals and guests. In a very short time frame became new friends,” said Willcox. “I’m also proud of the 96 TW team. Yet again, we proved that together we can do anything.”