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Utah Airmen Work to Restore Communications in Virgin Islands

By Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Gorman, Wisconsin Air National Guard

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ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sept. 24, 2017 — Six airmen assigned to the Joint Incident Site Communications Capability team of the Utah Air National Guard's 151st Air Refueling Wing based in Salt Lake City are deployed here to provide critical communications in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Chief Master Sgt. Don Johnnson and Staff Sgt. Tony Baca, Joint Incident Site Communication Capability team members with the 151st Air Refueling Wing Communications Flight in Salt Lake City, Utah, set up a SWE-DISH CCT120 satellite dish outside the Leonard B. Francis Armory in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sept. 20, 2017. The Sept. 7 deployment of the Utah JISCC helped re-establish critical military and emergency civil service communications within areas of the U.S. Virgin Islands severely impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Paul Gorman)
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Don Johnnson and Air Force Staff Sgt. Tony Baca, Joint Incident Site Communication Capability team members with the Utah Air National Guard's 151st Air Refueling Wing Communications Flight based in Salt Lake City, set up a satellite dish outside the Leonard B. Francis Armory in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sept. 20, 2017. The JISCC's deployment helped to re-establish critical military and emergency civil service communications in areas of the U.S. Virgin Islands severely affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Wisconsin Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Paul Gorman
Chief Master Sgt. Don Johnnson and Staff Sgt. Tony Baca, Joint Incident Site Communication Capability team members with the 151st Air Refueling Wing Communications Flight in Salt Lake City, Utah, set up a SWE-DISH CCT120 satellite dish outside the Leonard B. Francis Armory in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sept. 20, 2017. The Sept. 7 deployment of the Utah JISCC helped re-establish critical military and emergency civil service communications within areas of the U.S. Virgin Islands severely impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Paul Gorman) Utah Airmen restore communications in Virgin Islands
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Don Johnnson and Air Force Staff Sgt. Tony Baca, Joint Incident Site Communication Capability team members with the Utah Air National Guard's 151st Air Refueling Wing Communications Flight based in Salt Lake City, set up a satellite dish outside the Leonard B. Francis Armory in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sept. 20, 2017. The JISCC's deployment helped to re-establish critical military and emergency civil service communications in areas of the U.S. Virgin Islands severely affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Wisconsin Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Paul Gorman

The airmen deployed Sept. 7 and established a base of operations at the Leonard B. Francis Armory, rapidly setting up the antenna systems required to provide the 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 Air Force 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's JISCC is one of 42 such teams distributed throughout the Air National Guard, 15 of which are mobilized to support hurricane-damaged regions in Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Don Johnson, vice chairman of the Air Guard's JISCC working group, said 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," he said.

Further Impact

The Virgin Islands were further affected Sept. 19 by Hurricane Maria. The Utah JISCC members were forced to disassemble their equipment in advance of the storm and re-establish communications in its wake. But Air Force Airman 1st Class David Zham, newest member of the Utah JISCC team, said he considers that to be little more than an interruption.

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

With the already-extensive damage made worse by the passing of Hurricane Maria, additional 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."


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