A Military View of Katrina's Lessons
Military support of the Katrina disaster was organized under Joint Task Force Katrina. The findings outlined below are a few of the nuggets captured by U.S. Air Force rescue crews for future homeland defense support planning.
Units from across the U.S. deployed to Jackson, Miss. to assist. Many ended up acting as separate sub-units rather than as a collective, whole rescue organization. An opportunity to share lessons learned and alternative, recovery/communications techniques was lost by service- or unit-centric group behavior.
Most of the deployed USAF rescue assets were capable of air refueling, which presented a de-confliction issue between arriving and departing receiver aircraft. A simple solution was to use receiver-high, where the receiving aircraft approaches the air refueling track at 200 ft. above refueling altitude, and receiver-low (300 ft. below) for aircraft departing the track. Altitude de-confliction provided a safe means of getting aircraft to and from the track simultaneously.
Balancing stateside training requirements against war-time skills requires that certain training currency events be sacrificed in the interest of perfecting skills needed in combat. Several crews noted that a lack of recent sling-load and shipboard ops training inhibited exploitation of certain capabilities. Some rescue scenarios would have benefited from tethered or "kangaroo duck" operations, in which a motorized, inflatable raft is quickly deployed with rescue swimmers. That task is infrequently trained.
Communications was a quagmire. Frequency spectrum allocation should be planned for support ops of this type. Katrina responders tended to saturate a few frequencies in both the VHF and UHF spectra. Communications is of such utter importance for dispatch, assistance and de-confliction that its planning simply cannot be thrown together in an ad hoc fashion. Civil disaster frequency planning differs from military communications planning due to the necessity for civil, public, municipal, and military aircraft in the matrix. Emergency management planners must diagram the requirements for VHF/UHF air bands, VHF and HF marine bands, low VHF (FM) bands and SATCOM frequencies to enable comm for all first responders.
Intercomm speech discipline using directive before descriptive phraseology is paramount in the task- and highly aircraft-saturated environment. For example, it is more effective to announce visual contact of nearby traffic by saying, "Pilot, continue, single UH-1, one o'clock high, 1⁄2 mi., cold." Directive brevity tells the pilot first to continue, i.e. whatever is coming is not a dangerous factor, then follows by building the pilot's situational awareness on the traffic's exact position, elevation, distance and relative aspect. (Cold implies flying away from you). Practicing directive over descriptive comm saves precious air time and avoids the typical, "Hey, I've got a helicopter over here," which then begs the pilot's question, "Where?" Factor traffic should be called out, "Pilot, check 20 left, factor traffic, UH-1, one o'clock, level, 1⁄4 mi., hot". The time saved using directive brevity may mean the difference between a collision and a near miss.
Airspace control was virtually nonexistent until Sept. 5. First responders must have a procedural de-confliction plan that outlines rules of the road and VFR altitude splits (at the 100-ft. interval for low-altitude helicopter ops) or a regionally published emergency airspace management plan. While the heroic helicopter crews of Katrina simply made it work, the initial task saturation could have been eased with procedural de-confliction.
Search techniques were assisted by clever operations center use of Web-based products like Google Earth/Maps. When exact survivor coordinates weren't known but addresses were, this allowed military users access to high-quality coordinates to locate an address. While this is old hat and, in many cases, installed on police and firefighting helicopters, it is not standard in military rescue aircraft and not practiced in military command and control. This capability sped into action many rescues that otherwise would have been delayed awaiting location determination.
Search coordination was smoothed by using a keypad-grid, search map overlay. This facilitates easy management for search grids and should be practiced by civil and military first responders. A good technique that sped search efforts was the FEMA "X" painted on rooftops to signify homes already searched.
Data-linked helicopters were efficiently used for dispatching. The ability to quickly locate and dispatch them over the horizon allowed the closest aircraft to be dispatched to a rescue. Satellite-based systems like Outerlink or the military's general packet radio service can work exceptionally well
for dispatching first responders anywhere anytime.
While this short list covers some critical areas for potential improvement, crews should be lauded for their outstanding innovation, creativity and professionalism despite the obstacles to civil-military first response operations, not the least of which is planning shortfalls.
The views expressed are those of the author and not an official position of the U.S. Air Force. This article has been approved for release by USAF Air Warfare Center public affairs.