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Satellites provides solutions to save lives and support rescue efforts in Calif. wildfires



TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Lessons and technology from the battlefront are quickly coming to the home front as more Air Force resources are being utilized in the ongoing California wildfires.

As the Air Force organization that provides Defense Support to Civil Authorities works with several federal agencies to provide support to American communities, Operation Iraqi Freedom technology is currently being used in Operation Noble Eagle.

Maj. Gen. 'Hank' Morrow the Commander of First Air Force (Air Force Northern) answered the call last week for federal assistance by providing aircraft equipped with satellite tracking and communication technology used by the U. S. Forest Service to provide leaders and first responders with critical information to cut response times, and contain the California Wildfires.

Director of Space Forces at First Air Force, Lt. Col. Andy "Flash" Lasher, described how satellite technology is being used to provide an Internet-based unified picture that provides immediate visibility for military and civilian agencies fighting the California wildfires.

"This has been a true joint team effort.," said Colonel Lasher.

First Air Force responded to Maj. Gen. Morrow' s vision and provided program leadership.  Joint Forces Command provided resources. Naval Air Systems Command provided technical solutions. The Space Innovation and Development Center provided cutting-edge satellite communications equipment, and the U.S. Forest Service who uses flight tracking was able to apply the Blue Force tracking technology in a cooperative effort with First Air Force to work together for immediate response solutions. 

"This technology initiative by First Air Force increases mission effectiveness and could potentially save millions of dollars in property loss," according to Colonel Lasher. "We want to use every tool at our disposal to have keep families safe and protect their homes."

"The contributions of this joint effort brought military technology to U.S. first responders in a way that can be used by civilian and government authorities to react to disasters and help protect our homeland," said Colonel Lasher.

The process started when First Air Force provided eight Air Force Reserve and Guard rescue aircraft for shuttle launches. Blue Force Tracker technology on these aircraft, provided a "common operating picture" for rescue personnel, which was effective and immediate.

When it became obvious this satellite technology could benefit the California wildfires, more trackers were needed, and NAVAIR's team leader Mr. Bill Duncan made it a reality. First Air Force intensified its response to assure all military aircraft under General Morrow' s  tactical control would have this technology. 

The technology immediately tracks progress and locations of joint aircraft and people. This data combined with the location of the fires is populated into a visual picture that everyone can view, much like an online video game.

"This "common operating" picture enables leaders to immediately direct first responders to the right locations to fight fires. It gives them the information they need to make critical decisions, on the spot, without waiting for phone calls, or outdated information," said Colonel Lasher.

For the wildfires, last week First Air Force equipped 22 aircraft from the Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, Marine Corps, Navy and California National Guard with Blue Force tracking technology. This includes CH46Es, MH-53s, SH60s, California National Guard HH-60s, and Modular Air Fire Fighting System capable C130s.

General Morrow is also the Joint Forces Air Component Commander overseeing Air Force assets who now has new real-time visual data to connect military and civilian lead agencies in a robust joint effort to respond to and support civilian authorities, contain fires and conduct rescue efforts.

The process started in September 2007, when General Morrow observed Space Shuttle Rescue Operations. These rescue efforts were previously tracked with notes on paper maps.

The general asked Colonel Lasher for a space solution that was "portable, mobile, responsive and accurate." In four months, Colonel Lasher developed a relationship with NAVAIR who provided a device that was able to cross-link satellite data connecting military and civilian agencies.

TALON BUSHNELL was additionally provided by The Space Innovation and Development Center to give responding aircrews the ability to communicate out-of- range for space shuttle support, hurricane hunting, rescue and air defense missions.

NAVAIR provided the Blue Force trackers, the technical expertise and air time. The technology was first used  in January 2008. The project was successfully tested at NASA, during a practice astronaut recovery exercise for the shuttle launch. The Joint Task Force Shuttle Training Support team, made up of Army Navy and Coast Guard personnel, led the effort involving First Air Force (AFNORTH) under Air Combat Command.

Recovery ships, the "Cutter", the HC- 130, HH-60, the HU-25 Falcon, were used to test the communication equipment, which provided "immediate visibility and information management capabilities, creating realism and training to support the launch. The information used military and civilian cooperation to assure the right information went to the right agencies, "said Colonel Lasher. 

The goal of the exercise was to "recover all assets safely, validate systems and personnel and run through tactics, techniques and procedures," said Lt. Col. Nick Broccoli. This exercise took place in virtual, live and constructive realms to assure the shuttle launch was successful.

"The results exceeded expectations and emphasize what satellite capabilities have to offer," said Colonel Lasher.

Regardless of visibility, the personal locators provided signals for parachutes, ships and aircraft on a screen to leaders, which were then communicated with Coast Guard rescue boats locating the astronaut to make an immediate rescue and recovery. Prior to this test, information response time could be life threatening if boats or aircraft were out of radar or radio range or visibility was low.

In the future, Global Hawk technology will be used to sense hot spots in the heart of the fires and allow First Air Force to continue to provide real solutions for the needs of the U.S. in crisis.