Camp Blanding, FL - During the early morning hours Thursday, the Florida National Guard staged troops and equipment at multiple locations in anticipation of Hurricane Matthew striking the east coast of Florida.
As the central hub for command and control for National Guard troops, Florida National Guard’s Joint Operations Center normally operates in St. Augustine, Fla., but for the first time in its history, relocated to Camp Blanding, Fla., to support a real world crisis.
Brig. Gen. Ralph Ribas, the Joint Task Force Commander for the Florida National Guard, said the move was made for ease of operations and safety. The people staffing the JOC at Camp Blanding operate out of the Regional Training Institute (RTI) that is traditionally used for Florida’s military units to collectively train for their military missions.
“The RTI is a training location so they had to make the center fit for active emergency operations,” Ribas said. “We are blessed throughout the Florida Guard for having really great non-commissioned officers. As soon as they got on the ground, they were immediately troubleshooting any small issues.”
Ribas, who has 28 years of service in the Florida National Guard, experienced Hurricane Andrew as his first state active duty mission and considers Hurricane Andrew a watershed moment for the Florida Guard in terms of disaster response. Today, Ribas is confident in the readiness of today’s troops and the people leading them.
“We’re at another level today,” Ribas said. “It’s been almost 10 years since we’ve had to do this, but there’s a lot of experience and everyone’s going to do what it takes to be successful.”
According to Ribas, once the severity of the storm is determined, the Florida National Guard JOC will determine the support and logistical requirements needed. Upon receipt of orders from the JOC, Soldiers strategically situated throughout the state deploy to the communities to provide supplies and conduct rescue operations for people who still may be stranded in the hurricane’s aftermath.
Despite robust plans and regular annual training for contingency operations, the nature of the support varies with each emergency response scenario.
“When you have a large ramp-up like this and things escalate quickly, it can be challenging,” said JOC Planning and Operations Staff Sgt. Paul Gearen.
After being called up on 12 previous state activations, Ribas acknowledges the seamless coordination underway between the JOC and troops on the ground and attributes it to the state’s years of experience dealing with state emergencies.
“The Florida National Guard is ready to respond to the call,” said Ribas said.