NEWS | Aug. 13, 2021

Pa. Air National Guard helps fight West Coast fires

By Lt. Col. Angela King-Sweigart

Members of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard are serving as imagery experts, providing live aerial video streaming to fire bosses working on the front lines of the devastating fires.

The Airmen are Tactical Air Control Party Specialists (TACP) and part of the 148th Air Support Operations Squadron; they activated at the request of the National Interagency Fire Center. This is the first time the Pennsylvania Air National Guard used this asset to fight fires.

The mission is similar to TACPs wartime mission, according to Air Force Master Sgt. Brent Hill, one of the Airmen on the ground, and a Harrisburg City Fireman in his civilian job. TACP normally embed with Army or Marine units and call-in airstrikes. Hill and his team observe terrain and provide information to commanders. When fighting wildfire, they are observing the areas and providing the information to the first responders.

The team is using imagery, also known as Distributed Real-Time Infrared or DRTI, from an RC-26, a fixed-wing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft operated by Air National Guard pilots.

“What makes this work so well here is the IR [infrared] capabilities of the plane,” said Hill. “The smoke makes visibility impossible, but using IR allows the plane to ‘see’ through the smoke.”

Hill along with Senior Airman Julius Reed and Staff Sgt. William Gray collect the imagery and provide information to fire bosses. “We meet with each of them and determine what their needs are,” he said. “Sometimes they are looking for us to spot fires ahead of the fire line, and sometimes it’s providing oversight during back burning. Regardless, we provide additional incident awareness and assessment.”

Having the Air National Guard members assisting is a benefit for the National Interagency Fire Center, according to George Violante, the National Interagency Fire Center's distributed real-time infrared (DRTI) liaison.

"The entire fire service lacks fire fighters, equipment, and especially intelligence capable assets," Violante said. "Being able to utilize TACPs and the ISR aircraft during fire suppression efforts is filling a large gap that we, in civilian government lack. The expertise TACPs bring truly makes our jobs much easier, safer, and can translate into our mission objectives."

“TACP-we are drawn to missions like these-it’s a call to service,” said Hill. “This is an amazing opportunity to help save lives and property and use the skill sets we’ve learned. I’m fortunate to have the support and training from both my civilian job and the military.”

Violante agrees, “They require limited training and can engage right into providing real-time critical decision-making information for the incident management personnel. The constant demand for this type of support speaks for itself. We appreciate their time away from their families and the long hours they work to support the Interagency National Fire Center and fire staff on the ground.”