Utah Airmen restore communications in Virgin Islands

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Paul Gorman
  • 115th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Six Airmen assigned to the Joint Incident Site Communications Capability team of the 151st Air Refueling Wing in Salt Lake City, Utah, deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands September 7, to provide critical communications in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The Utah Airmen established a base of operations at the Leonard B. Francis Armory in St. Thomas, rapidly setting up the antenna systems required to provide the islands Tactical Operations Center with a wide array of communications capabilities.

“When we first arrived in St. Thomas, all cell services, local phone lines and internet services were down,” said 2nd Lt. Tyler Olsen, JISCC officer in charge. “We were able to establish voice and data for the first time on the island since Hurricane Irma had wiped them out. It was their first opportunity to communicate with the outside world.”

JISCC capabilities are designed to augment civilian first responders, and bridge the communications gap between military and civilian agencies. Each team is equipped to establish remote internet, telephone and radio capabilities at locations with a damaged or nonexistent communications infrastructure.

The 151st ARW JISCC is one of 42 block three teams distributed throughout the Air National Guard, 15 of which are currently mobilized to support hurricane damaged regions of Texas, Florida, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

According to Chief Master Sgt. Don Johnson, vice chairman of the ANG JISCC working group, recent events represent a historic activation of the domestic operations asset.

“While JISCC teams are routinely called upon to support regional incidents and events benefiting from their unique capabilities, the recent chain of hurricanes impacting the southeastern U.S. has resulted in the largest mobilization of JISCC assets since first fielded to the ANG,” Johnson said.

On September 19th the Virgin Islands were further impacted by the passing of Hurricane Maria. The Utah JISCC members were forced to disassemble their equipment in advance of the storm, and re-establish communications in its wake.

Airman 1st Class David Zham, newest member of the Utah JISCC team considered the event little more than an interruption.

“We had to protect our equipment in order to resume service as soon as it was over,” Zham said. “We were able to bounce right back, so our mission never stopped, it was merely put on pause.”

With the extensive damage further levied by the passing of Hurricane Maria, additional ANG JISCC teams are being mobilized to meet the continued requirements for emergency communications support to the region. 

“Hurricane Irma gave us vital insight into how important communications can be in a large scale disaster,” Olsen said. “I believe the JISCC will be an integral component of domestic operations from here on into the foreseeable future.”