Air Force Rescue Personnel Prepare to Depart Gulf Coast Region
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, Sept. 27, 2005 Active-duty and reserve-component rescue airmen are "staging to depart" after spending the past five days supporting Hurricane Rita rescue missions along the Texas-Louisiana border. The airmen returning home are a part of about 800 troops, 91 aircraft and 31 "equipment packages" the Air Force provided to rescue efforts.
Airmen from the active-duty 38th, 48th and 58th rescue wings and the Air Reserve's 920th Rescue Wing, participated in search and air-rescue missions after Hurricane Rita came ashore Sept. 24.
Prior to launching the search-and-rescue missions, disaster-response leaders divided the search areas into grids. Each rescue element was given a grid to search.
Air Force pararescue teams, known as "PJs," are credited with 10 "saves." A save, 58th Rescue Wing leaders said, occurs anytime the airmen "deliver a critical patient to definitive medical care." The PJs were also credited with five "assists," assisting non-critical personnel in an evacuation.
The PJ teams are currently on standby here and at Ellington Field, in Houston, after completing 57 missions in response to Hurricane Rita, more than half of the 112 Air Force missions flown to date in preparation for and response to Hurricane Rita. Defense Department officials said there were few rescues because most citizens evacuated areas in the storm's path.
Many of these airmen also served in search-and-rescue efforts for Hurricane Katrina. Some perform search and rescue with civilian authorities at least once per quarter, so situations like the disaster aftermaths of hurricanes Rita and Katrina are not new to them.
"It's seamless," Harding said. "We practice ... at home station, so really it's like second nature for us to go in and find people."
A key to coordinating the rescue efforts was that they had a "combat rescue officer" assigned to command and control elements. The combat rescue officer helped coordinate the rescue with those who had information about the victims on the ground.
"It was a lot easier this time (than after Hurricane Katrina)," one of the unit leaders said. He added that the rescue missions were a "good team effort" between the active-duty and reserve-component forces.
Harding, a 14-year PJ veteran, said that while the disaster rescues are challenging, they are safer than performing missions in combat.
"There's chaos, but nobody's shooting at us," Harding said. "Nobody wishes this on anybody, but it does give us an opportunity to fly into different situations.
"It nice to be needed," he said.
As of today, search-and-rescue operations are complete, and the damaged areas have been thoroughly searched, Army Lt. Gen. Robert Clark, Joint Task Force Rita commander, said. Now, the mission has shifted to relief aid distribution, he said.