Nuclear Treaty Monitoring Unit at Brevard’s Patrick Air Force Base Cleans Up After Hurricane Irma

By  //  September 16, 2017

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relocated critical operations to alternate location

Airmen from the Air Force Technical Applications Center, Patrick AFB, Fla., pack up equipment in preparation for Hurricane Irma Sept. 7, 2017. Pictured from left to right: Airman 1st Class David Orcasitas, Airman 1st Class Justin McEwen, Airman 1st Class Alexander Lang and Tech. Sgt. Pete Olivieri. (U.S. Air Force photo by Susan A. Romano)

BREVARD COUNTY • PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, FLORIDA – In the wake of a confirmed nuclear test in North Korea Sept. 3, members of the Air Force Technical Applications Center balanced the requirement for its 24/7 no-fail nuclear detection mission to continue with the need to evacuate as Hurricane Irma barreled up Florida’s peninsula.

Four days before the massive Category 3 storm made landfall in south Florida Sept. 10, AFTAC leadership made the decision to relocate its critical operations to its alternate location. Once Airmen were in place and all systems were set up to accept the mission, the headquarters here took the necessary steps to evacuate more than 385 Airmen and nearly 2,000 family members from the area.

Travel experts secured scarce airline tickets for a team of 50+ personnel to make the trip to from Orlando to Texas Sept. 6, and the relocation team had AFTAC’s monitoring system up-and-running within hours.

“The most challenging part of contingency management operations is maintaining the mission with no end in sight,” said Senior Master Sgt. David Maurice, superintendent of AFTAC’s Continuity of Operations. “On most deployments, you know how long you have to perform the mission. Here, we started with uncertainty and have to keep going until they stay stop. But as challenging as it is to transfer the mission from one location to another, it’s even more taxing when we have to leave our families behind to deal with a major hurricane.”

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That obstacle was something AFTAC’s commander took very seriously.

“My number one concern is the safety and well-being of AFTAC Airmen and their families,” said Col. Steven M. Gorski.

“While our national decision-makers rely on us to provide uninterrupted access to nuclear event detection data, we also must ensure our personnel have all the resources and assistance they need to weather a major storm or evacuate the area. It’s doubly hard on those Airmen who have to relocate prior to the storm – their focus is on the mission, but their hearts are back at home. Thankfully we’ve got an incredible network of people here who consistently look out for each other and come together, even under the most austere and challenging of circumstances.”

Prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irma, senior leadership from the Air Force Technical Applications Center, Patrick AFB, Fla., meet to discuss steps necessary to safely evacuate the nuclear treaty monitoring center while ensuring the 24/7 mission continues uninterrupted. Pictured at the table from left to right: Col. Steven M. Gorski, AFTAC commander; Chief Master Sgt. Michael Joseph, AFTAC command chief; and Lt. Col. Joseph Shupert. (U.S. Air Force photo by Susan A. Romano)

One of those Airmen is Senior Airman David Richardson, a defensive cyber operations technician who deployed to Texas, but had to leave his wife Elizabeth behind.

“My wife hunkered down with my co-worker Staff Sgt. (Jonathan) North’s wife in their home, along with two other AFTAC NCOs who didn’t fall under the mandatory evacuation order,” said Richardson.

“So with four adults, five dogs and a lot of prayers, everyone came together and combined their resources to include fuel, water and an assortment of canned foods to make it through the storm. Late Sunday they lost power, but luckily they had a generator to keep the refrigerators going so all the food would not spoil.”

Once Irma whipped through Central Florida and the base commander granted permission for first responders to make their initial rounds across the installation, members of AFTAC’s reconstitution team reported to the $158 million facility to assess any damage and determine when additional personnel could return to get the center’s critical networks and systems running again.

Members of the Air Force Technical Applications Center take steps to cover and protect documents in the center’s technical library in preparation for Hurricane Irma Sept. 7, 2017. Pictured from left to right: Danielle Turlington, Sabrina Miller, Tech. Sgt. Judy Mehaffy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Susan A. Romano)

Tech. Sgt. Desiree Penn, AFTAC’s hurricane recovery team lead, was one of the first people to arrive at the center to report the status of the building to Gorski.

“The first thing the HRT does is look for any extensive damage that may have occurred,” said Penn.

“Once we do a full walk-around of the entire facility, we report any safety hazards or significant problems like downed power lines or major flooding. We also make sure the overall security of the building hasn’t been degraded. I was very relieved that most of the damage we incurred was minor since several tornadoes touched down in the area, and that we had very little water damage considering how close we are to the Atlantic Ocean.”

When the majority of AFTAC personnel returned to work, they had full internet and email connectivity, cooled offices and an undamaged interior work center.

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“Returning to a highly-technical, fully-functional facility does not happen by accident,” said Gorski. “It happens as a result of an extremely dedicated work force that goes above and beyond what’s asked of them.”

He added, “We lost a few trees, experienced some damage to our outdoor pavilion and had an HVAC system ripped from one of our warehouses, but overall I’d say the storm had a modest impact on our headquarters building. Through it all, our Airmen continued to analyze the recent North Korea nuclear text while juggling a major weather event. Their performance in the face of the toughest challenges speaks to their professionalism and dedication to the mission. They personify the definition of resilience.”

Members of the Air Force Technical Applications Center at Patrick AFB, Fla., confer with base civil engineers and local contractors in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma that impacted the base Sept. 10, 2017. Pictured left to right: Master Sgt. Michael Sheetz, AFTAC’s HVAC technician; M. Scott Duffy, a contractor with DE HVAC Associates; Raymond Vigil, 45th Civil Engineer Squadron HVAC technician; and Tony Morris, AFTAC’s facility program manager. (U.S. Air Force photo by Susan A. Romano)

Gorski took family members into high consideration as storm preparations were underway. He and his command chief, Chief Master Sgt. Michael Joseph, conducted a Facebook Live session for spouses to relay pertinent details to AFTAC families and take questions from viewers who may have had concerns about what plans they should make or actions they should take to prepare for an inbound hurricane.

“From what I understand, this was the first time AFTAC has ever done something like this,” said Louise Goodwin, an AFTAC Key Spouse and wife of Lt. Col. Jeremy Goodwin.

“I was so pleased when Colonel Gorski asked me to be a part of it, and I’ve received great feedback from so many spouses about how incredible the communication has been. We have some families who have never been through a hurricane before, so having access to the commander and the command chief was so valued and appreciated.”

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Col. Jonathan VanNoord, AFTAC’s Director of Operations and officer-in-charge of the relocation team, stressed the importance of wingmanship and how teamwork played a significant role in transferring the mission.

“In the past year alone, we have twice exercised our ability to move our treaty monitoring mission from our main location to our alternate location,” he said.

“Both times, we have been fully successful. That is a testament to the skills and abilities of the Airmen assigned to the center. If North Korea decided to set off another nuclear detonation in the middle of a hurricane coming toward the United States, especially one aimed at Florida, we’d be ready to detect and analyze it. That’s how good this team of experts really is. I couldn’t be more proud of the men and women of AFTAC – they truly made it look easy and seamless.”