PONCE, Puerto Rico, Oct. 23, 2017 —
For some, the idea of spending hours hundreds of feet above the world suspended by only a rope and harness is a terrifying thought.
For the airmen of the 85th Engineering and Installation Squadron from Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, it’s just another day at the office.
The 85th EIS airmen climbed high into the Puerto Rican air at Cerro de Punta Mountain near Ponce to repair radio communications infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Maria.
“We’ve actually heard a lot of stories since we got here about people who, in an emergency, haven’t been able to call 911, or if they do call 911, a dispatcher has no way of getting help out to them,” said Air Force Capt. Jose Gutierrez del Arroyo, the deputy flight commander and specialized engineer of the 85th EIS. “This is going to alleviate some of those issues throughout the island and hopefully get some help to people that need it the most.”
The mission is a large part of Joint Force Land Component Command’s mission to reestablish communications and emergency services in Puerto Rico. The airmen will travel to several different radio tower sites across the island to repair radio communication systems for emergency personnel and first responders.
“What most would consider a redundant communication system in the [mainland] United States, they don’t have here,” said Air Force Capt. Ryan Headrick, the operations flight commander of the 85th EIS. “As soon as we get that back up, I think it will definitely help that level of communication.”
Many of the sites lay in remote locations with little to no road access. These conditions, paired with the damage left behind by Hurricane Maria, Headrick said, have made logistics a challenge.
“It has definitely been tough,” he said. “We’re working with a bunch of different mission partners out here like [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and Army North. It has been a lot of coordination and figuring things out as we go.”
Cerro de Punta, the highest peak in Puerto Rico, sits in an austere location with hazardous terrain and limited vehicle access. The 85th EIS had to coordinate with FEMA and other government agencies for a precision airdrop to get their container full of harnesses, safety equipment and supplies onto the mountain.
The airmen are scheduled to stay at the location for four days, clearing debris and potential hazards from the tower, installing antennas for land-mobile radio systems, repairing any existing radio systems for local emergency personnel and repairing communication antennas for local networks before moving to another site.
“It feels great to be out here,” Headrick said. “We can already start to see some of the impact that we’re having. Once we get it back up and actually see radios working, that’s huge for us to be able to see our impact in action.”
The airmen aren’t limited to just radio communications and tower climbing. They also install internet systems, run cable to connect communications between buildings, and have experts on staff for radar, radio, electrical, and engineering projects. They recently modernized communications throughout the White House.
Happy to Help at Home
Gutierrez del Arroyo is a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and said he is excited to be able to contribute to efforts on the island and assist the local affected population. His entire family looked for ways to contribute to the relief efforts after the hurricane hit, he said.
“There was no way of getting supplies out here,” Gutierrez del Arroyo said. “There was no way to fly stuff in. You couldn’t even fly yourself in commercially, so all of a sudden this opportunity opens up for me to deploy here to Puerto Rico and do some of the stuff we actually do around the world.”
Now, he and the rest of the 85th EIS plan to do their part to support government efforts in Puerto Rico through repairing emergency communication systems across the island.
“I’m really excited to be here. I feel blessed to be here, honestly,” Gutierrez del Arroyo said. “Everyone’s on the same page here trying to get one single mission done, which is really cool to see.”