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Integrating Aviation in Emergency Situations

An experienced aviator with some rank on the command operation center is a force multiplier for the entire aviation operation.

The terms command operation center (COC), emergency operation center, incident command post and unified command (and other synonyms) apply to the nerve centers that coordinate the decision-making for public-safety responses to both man-made and natural disasters. Communications and real-time intelligence are crucial for success in early response phases. The role of aviation, especially of rotary-wing aircraft, cannot be underestimated.

Successful COCs, regardless whether they involve a police situation or a natural disaster, have some things in common. There must be a decision-maker on hand at all times with the authority to control assigned assets. The command center must be properly staffed and organized to be able to handle the flow of information. It must also be staffed with the people who are subject-matter experts and properly experienced to provide timely and sound advice to the decision-maker.

If you are from an outside agency partnering in the response under a COC, it is shortsighted to send your least experienced person to provide advice to the decision-makers. Due to the complex capabilities of modern aviation, it is even more important for the aviation element to provide expertise. An aviator with some rank, rather than a green pilot assigned to the COC, can act as both a buffer for his aircrews and provide sound advice. An aviator on the COC staff is a force multiplier for the entire aviation operation, ensuring proper tasking and command and control.

The decision-maker must also have the proper temperament. These are life-and-death situations, and the stress on the decision-maker can be incredible. Information overload is as much a hazard as a shortage of information. Early reports are rarely accurate or complete. The decision-maker must act on those reports and also fight the tendency to overreact. Patience is vital.

If the COC is properly staffed, it will sort out the situation. It is also important that the decision-maker trusts the professionals on site, even when initial communications are sparse or confusing. The decision-maker must remember that no one in the COC is bleeding, drowning or dying, and the professionals on the scene may be engaged in saving lives or directing other assets to do so. This is often the case with helicopters. They will give an initial report and then engage the problem. The decision-maker must also resist the urge to micromanage assigned assets.

Thus, experience in previous operations is essential. Without it, one can learn, to some extent, through realistic COC training exercises conforming to the U.S. National Incident Management System (NIMS) model. As painful and boring as these exercises might be, aviation must participate in them. No one else has the expertise.

DPS, Texas Ranger and other supervisors from comms and intel in a Mobile Command Post.Photo courtesy of Darla Freeman

The Texas Dept. of Public Safety (DPS) has become highly proficient at COC operations. It is capable of not only establishing and running the full span of emergency scenarios, including floods, fires, hurricanes and tornados, but is also highly experienced with active shooters, barricaded suspects, security for sports events and sustained border operations against the cartels.

Additionally, DPS and its aviation division are experienced at integrating with COCs established by other agencies. That experience includes assisting a small rural county dealing with a flash flood and integrating with the huge multi-agency response in Houston in 2008 when Hurricane Ike struck — the third most destructive hurricane ever.

Every aviator with experience in multiple types of events has seen well-organized and poorly organized responses. Generally, disaster responses tend to be more organized than law enforcement actions. There are two reasons for this.

First, jurisdictional issues often arise. In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) video “The Coming Storm” was circulated to chiefs of police across the U.S. It encapsulates how law enforcement should respond to active shooters — how to handle the jurisdictional issues as well as public information and the support role of the FBI. It stresses the role of the chief of police in how best to command the incident. Chiefs who have seen this model should extrapolate its lessons to other situations.

Second, law enforcement has not been as open to training and adherence to NIMS as have colleagues in emergency management.

NIMS is described in a 156-page document available on the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency website. It provides a systematic, proactive approach to guide departments and agencies at all levels of government, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to work seamlessly to prevent, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate the effects of incidents, regardless of cause, size, location or complexity. The goal is to reduce the loss of life and property and harm to the environment.

Not surprisingly, “The Coming Storm” video conforms to the NIMS model. Armed with just those two resources, most organizations would have a better understanding of their roles in multi–agency response.

DPS helicopter working out of the Mobile Command Post on wild fires that burned an area the size of Connecticut in one season.Photo courtesy of Darla Freeman

One of the finest examples of a law enforcement COC that is NIMS-compliant, with highly sophisticated aviation operations and integrated intelligence assets, is the DPS Command Center in Weslaco, Texas. This unit is a robust 24/7 operation with highly integrated aviation support. There are three secure downlink reception nodes. A fourth feed may be activated, though it is generally reserved for routing an active feed over a secure web for remote viewing by authorized personnel anywhere in the state. For officers in a vehicle without downlink, overhead stills from the aircraft camera can be texted or emailed. For communications, DPS aircraft use multiple-band Technisonic radios and have the capacity for as many as 12,000 state, federal and local frequencies. One DPS helicopter has 7,000 loaded.

For terrorism or law enforcement COCs, such as Weslaco, the need for accurate, time-sensitive intelligence is a critical success item. The Texas Joint Criminal Information Center (TJCIC) was rated the top “fusion center” in the country in 2014. Fusion centers are the 78 U.S. Homeland Security Dept.-certified facilities where multiple databases are accessed by partner agencies to support each other’s operations, leading to more successful intelligence-driven missions. The center’s offices include federal, state and local agencies with analysts and liaison officers as high as those in the GS-15 level in the U.S. civil government (on par with an Air Force, Army or Marine Corps colonel or a Navy or Coast Guard captain).

The Weslaco COC is staffed by analysts linked to the center to provide a two-way flow of real-time intelligence. DPS aviation assets, through contact reports and covert intelligence surveillance reconnaissance flights, are heavily relied on for real-time intelligence. The multi-agency Operation Drawbridge to interdict drug and human trafficking along the Texas-Mexico border is an excellent example of real-time, intel-driven operations that take place under the Weslaco COC.

At the TJCIC, thousands of covert motion-detecting cameras are monitored 24/7 by personnel under the Texas Ranger Division to spot illicit border incursions. After validating “human traffic” by the system monitors, within seconds an email is sent to the cell phones of all state and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) pilots in that area, as well as supervisors at the U.S. Border Patrol. The email contains the geographical location and photo of the suspects with a time stamp. Pilots may launch or airborne crews may redirect. All pilots use air-to-air communication to de-conflict, so that the response is coordinated. Every pilot is on the same frequency and in communication with responding ground units. DPS and CBP boats are often able to stop drug smugglers from fleeing back to Mexico. The synergizing of the COC with intel and aviation makes Drawbridge statistically the world’s most successful border encroachment apprehension program. Between June 2014 and March 2017, DPS intelligence-driven operations seized more than $1.6 billion worth of illegal drugs in the border region.

Texas Dept. of Public Safety’s Big Bird (EC145) and Littler Bird at the 2011 Super Bowl.Photo courtesy of Darla Freeman

Like all COCs for long-running operations, Weslaco had initial growing pains. Augment personnel rotated in and out from around the state, often with little experience in COC ops. But as the majority of DPS personnel did multiple tours, the entire department grew adept at COC operations. That COC experience has prepared them to conduct hasty, ad hoc COCs for unplanned incidents.

DPS’ adoption of the NIMS model is in no small measure due to the Texas Dept. of Emergency Management being a part of DPS and integrating seamlessly with law enforcement. Its chief has pressed the philosophy and demonstrated the validity of the concept through multiple responses every year, and law enforcement has followed suit. DPS’ Communications Division’s equipment is state-of-the-art, mobile and NIMS-compliant.

The aviation division has a scalable response to fit the needs of integration with small, rural COCs using quick-response Chevrolet Tahoes (equipped with digital downlink video and a command suite of radios similar to those in the helicopter) to get capabilities quickly to a disaster-stricken area. If follow-on support is needed, Communications deploys highly sophisticated, fully self-supporting command trailers and logistic support vehicles providing multiple downlink capability and satellite communications.

The two basic lessons are that an organization should learn, train and adhere to NIMS, and as aviators, we must understand that sometimes, the most important place for a solid pilot is on the ground in the COC. RWI