STRATTON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.Y. - The 109th Airlift Wing’s Vehicle Maintenance Flight normally worries about keeping the wing’s vehicles moving.
Now they’ve got a new mission: Master the art of operating chain saws and skid steer vehicles so that the wing’s Airmen, who specialize in flying missions to the Arctic and Antarctic, can help their fellow New Yorkers clean up after a natural disaster.
The vehicle maintainers have taken the lead in developing a 26-Airman debris clearance capability at the wing.
“In 2010 it was indicated that equipment was needed by some units to support airfield and route debris cleanup,” said Maj. Jason Zeliph, Directorate of Operations (J3) Operations and Plans officer at Joint Force Headquarters in Latham. “Over the years, more equipment has been added. All of the air wings in the nation have now been equipped with the debris clearance package.”
The 109th was given chainsaws, skid steer loaders, rakes, shovels, and the safety gear needed to equip a package.
At most Air National Guard units the Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force squadron, known as Prime BEEF, got this mission. The 109th’s Prime BEEF unit was eliminated a few years back.
The Vehicle Maintenance Flight was assigned to develop the capability needed.
“It’s an Air Force-funded UTC (unit type code) for domestic operations,” said Chief Master Sgt. Mark Schaible, 109th Logistics Readiness Squadron’s Vehicle Maintenance superintendent.
A UTC is a package consisting of either equipment or personnel to support specific missions.
“If the Air National Guard was needed anywhere in the state to clear roads for first responders and power companies, the intent is that initial response force would go out and start clearing the roads of trees and debris – anything that’s blocking responders from getting to a site,” Schaible said.
“We had to figure out how to do this without having these 26 people,” Schaible said. “The driving factor for using vehicle maintenance is that my mechanics are already qualified operators on all the equipment. So to get this program up and running, it just made sense to do it that way.”
Vehicle Maintenance began recruiting people from throughout the base to be part of the debris clearance team and then started training them on how to use the equipment. They reached out to the New York Guard - the state’s volunteer defense force - for training on chainsaw operations.
On June 16, New York Guard 1st Sgt. Robert Rathburn conducted the Chainsaw Basic Coursework for 15 members of the 109th AW at Stratton.
The timing couldn’t have been better, as the wing received a request from Schenectady County’s airport authority to remove some trees that were blocking their view of the ramp.
“We partnered with Schenectady County and used this as a training event for the team,” Schaible said. “We cleared all of the tree line over a three-week period.
It was at no cost to Schenectady County or Stratton Air National Guard Base, and we got training out of it for the team. We decided it was not only a great opportunity to do it, but get training at the same time.”
“We should take every opportunity we can to garner good will within the community, and not just from a political standpoint but because it is the right thing to do,” said Master Sgt. Scott Bailey, of the 109th Medical Group who volunteered to be part of the tree clearing team.
Vehicle Maintenance conducted more training – this time with the 109th Fire Department’s 13-person search and rescue team as they taught them how to operate the skid steers.
“Our job is to search and locate victims in any natural disasters, building collapses - anything of the sort,” said Tech. Sgt. Adam Myers, a 109th firefighter and member of the search and rescue team. “We have numerous specialties including rope rescue, vehicle extraction, and structural collapse.
“This kind of training here with the skid steers gives us another skill in our pockets to respond to disaster situations,” he said.
Not only can the search and rescue team now use this equipment if needed, they are also qualified to be on the debris clearance team.
“Our vehicles, equipment and personnel are fully ready to go,” Schaible said. Vehicle Maintenance will continue to conduct more training opportunities so more 109th AW members are available to respond.
Members of the 109th AW already have a good deal of experience with response efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Unit Airmen have provided logistics and debris clearance support in all these responses.