Citizen Airmen partner with “California Electric Boys” to restore hope

  • Published
  • By Darnell Gardner
  • 452 AMW public affairs
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series.

Before we begin, this is not a tale of an Air Force reserve Chief who single-handedly accomplished the impossible with electric tape and a pair of gloves, but an account of how a group of unknown Citizen Airmen, who partnered with private utility companies, to restore life to East-coasters, hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy. Driven by Service before Self and commitment to fellow Americans, March Field Airmen, along with assets from other air force bases, airlifted personnel, vehicles and equipment, more than 3,000 miles in less than 72 hours to participate in the nationwide relief effort.

News of Super-storm Sandy's impending devastation flooded the airways, which prompted a response from Federal Emergency Management Agency, to have disaster relief unit's standby in case called upon. When the disaster assessment was released, it revealed that relief operations would need to begin immediately, so the U.S. President ordered the military to "Lean forward" and assist with recovery operations. March Air Reserve Base, was called upon to airlift more than 100 Southern California utility workers, with vehicles and equipment, 3000 miles in less than 72 hours to participate in the nationwide relief effort.

The role of traditional reservist's in the Total Force may need to be reconsidered after the events that took place during the Sandy disaster response. Most people typically think that a reservist works one weekend a month and two weeks a year, yet are expected to perform at the same level of proficiency as their active duty counterparts, who perform the same tasks on a routine basis. The mid-week recall went out to Air Reserve Technicians, who usually operate with limited personnel, but due to that magnitude of the request, reservists had to be called in. Within two hours, members started showing up for duty, leaving their civilian jobs and families behind.

Traditional Reservist, Chief Master Sgt. Jim Wood, operations superintendent, 56th Aerial Port Squadron and Technical Specialist in the Transmission and Distribution Business Unit, Construction Methods Department, Southern California Edison utility company, has been with both outfits for more than 31 years. He, as all Citizen Airmen, have to create balance between his military and civilian commitments, in addition to maintaining a stable home life.

"I've been married for 35 years. From my first deployment to date, my family has provided unwavering support," said Wood. "My wife, my partner, my life-long friend enables me. My son, my young man, knows to step up and be the man of the house during my absence."

Chief Wood recalled the events that lead up to the massive airlift and restoration operation. "After finishing the October B Unit Training Assembly, I had just settled in for a relaxing evening at home with family, when I received a call came from SCE Director, Ed Antillion." He explained that SCE would be mobilizing crews and equipment to the East Coast in support of Sandy recovery operations. Overhearing the conversation, my wife knew that when duty called, I had to go, he said. Without hesitation, her single response was, "I will get your bags packed with whatever you need. Your Airmen and crew members need you, so go."

Through the Edison Electric Institute, SCE is listed on a nation-wide mutual assistance agreement, as a company that is capable of deploying to troubled areas in the nation to provide emergency utility services. This way, areas close to the disaster areas do not deplete their resources when responding to emergencies... it is a way of sharing the responsibility with sibling states.

Wood was first on the notification list due to his experience with the Air Force and because he has an in depth knowledge of the lengths, widths, heights and weights of the vehicles. He is intimately involved with every piece of equipment used for the distribution electric system by SCE, which made him an ideal candidate to include in their planning cell.

"My primary responsibility is to oversee the 'build' of the equipment, such as trucks, that are used by the guys out in the field and to assess safety issues during repair need to understand the dialectic integrity because our crews will work on lines that are energized up to 33,000 volts, so there is a lot of safety precautions that go into our equipment," said Wood.

On Monday, Oct. 29, SCE planners began strategizing on a plan of action. Similar to the military, self-sustainment is part of their doctrine, so plans would have to incorporate steps that would allow them to operate without assistance and unimpeded by the surrounding chaos and mass destruction. Being a veteran 'deployer,' Wood instantaneously began suggesting must-haves in order to ensure smooth operations. He was so thorough that he left the rest of the planning cell in absolute awe. Every aspect was laid out, all the way down to how the crews were going to wash their work clothes. The war room director had calculated personnel and equipment requirements, but did not think to consider which bare essentials would be needed by the crews during the operation.

Transportation was the next issue to tackle. Initially, the State of California requested airlift, but was denied due to limited availability. Not to be stumped there, planners hashed out a plan that involved loading the vehicles and equipment onto tractor-trailers and driving them over-the-road. The call went out to start contracting flat bed trucks and trailers for the trek across the country, which was estimated to take three days, with non-stop, dual-driving teams.

Arrangements were made to fuel the vehicles and generators prior to departure so that upon arrival, they could be immediately dispatched to troubled areas. With a planned one-hour head start, Wood and his partner would run interference with law enforcement officers so the convoy could roll through each state without any questions asked. To support this action, Wood was given proclamations from the U.S. President and the state of New York. In addition, he was issued an Hours of Service regulation for the commercial drivers, because legally, they are only allowed to drive 11 hours in a 14-hour day, but in cases of national emergencies, times could be extended.

Later that afternoon, Wood was recalled into another meeting with FEMA, state officials, multiple utility companies from around the region and the Edison Electric Institute. As mission updates were being disseminated, a call came in from a very interested party. As the call was transferred to the loud  speaker, the concerned voice of President Obama enveloped the room, commanding their attention.

The President thanked everyone for their commitment to country and expressed his gratitude that they were mobilizing to help others. "Under my authority, I am ordering our military to 'Lean Forward' and provide whatever is needed to assist with recovery operations," said the President.

With the support of the Armed Forces, the plans shifted towards airlifting the vehicles and equipment to the disaster area. Wood, exercising both military and civilian ingenuity, immediately requested ground and service teams to defuel, wash and secure trucks and generators for the five-hour flight. Air Force operating instructions stipulate that equipment must be purged of hazardous fluids and cleaned prior to loading on aircraft.

"My experience as an aerial porter and loading aircraft came into play when it came down to submitting the weights, measurements and center of balances for load planning," said Wood. "To compliment that, I was intimate with the builds of the SCE vehicles, so I automatically knew which trucks would fit best on assigned aircraft."

Unknown by most private sector companies, equipment readied for transport on MilAir must have Air Transportability Test Loading Agency, or ATTLA, certification--since this was the first-ever movement of this type of civilian equipment, the proper certifications were not available. In most cases, this would have been a showstopper, but not for Citizen Airmen. A call went out to an ATTLA administrator who was attending an Air Force Transportation conference in the local area, to 'beat-feet' over to March Field to provide on-the-spot certification services. Gen. Raymond Johns, commander, Air Mobility Command, was also at the same conference and decided to visit March ARB to see how operations were going.

"Gen. Johns was met with organized chaos on the March Field flight line," said Wood. "He saw me, dressed in civilian clothing, performing as though I had a purpose--I didn't have time to change into my military uniform." To relieve the inquisitive look on Gen. Johns' face, Col. Mahaney, commander, 452nd Air Mobility Wing, quickly and assuredly explained who I was and how I fit into the scenario." Mahaney said that Wood was not in uniform because he was not on active orders at the time. He was there because of his airlift experience as a Citizen Airman and his intimate knowledge of SCE's assets as one of their technical specialists--the 'wearer of two hats,' as most reservists are.

A few words were exchanged between the General and Chief, but were cut short because the tempo was moving at a very high pace, which demanded Chief's full attention. Ten minutes later, the General returned to Wood for a quick, thank you handshake, while slipping him one of his command coins.

Part two of the series will be printed in the Dec. 7 edition.