Thursday, 1 October 2020

The Cal Guard’s Joint Operation Center—where the mission never ends

Photo Ryan Sheldon

The Joint Operation Center (JOC) located at the California National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters in Sacramento is the Cal Guard's epicenter for information regarding emergencies throughout the state.

Missions that Cal Guard units can be tasked with during emergencies range from search and rescue, wildfire fuel management projects to providing temporary shelters for the homeless, writes Ryan Sheldon. 

U.S. Army Capt. Larry Rankin, an operations officer with Joint Force Headquarters, serving as the JOC officer in charge, said information into the JOC comes from the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (CAL OES), civilian state agencies, law enforcement and fire departments from across the state, active-duty military units, and National Guard units throughout the state, including out-of-state National Guard units assisting with emergencies in California.

“We develop a synchronized Common Operating Picture (COP) to provide situational awareness for senior leaders to advise future actions, planning and coordinated efforts during any steady-state and emergency operations, and keep the training grounds free and unencumbered,” said Rankin.

Within the JOC, there are multiple sections that offer input to senior leaders to make critical decisions at a moment’s notice.

“We support and provide information to the Information Awareness and Assessment (IAA) team that manages overall visibility of an individual incident,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Akil Dangerfield, an all-source intelligence analyst with the 149th Intelligence Squadron. “We provide information to the IAA team about an incident and where they can help. Weather plays a huge factor as far as providing aerial awareness of an incident. If it’s a cloudy day or visibility is poor, operations can come to a standstill.”

Dangerfield provides information to assist IAA in coordinating aerial awareness.

In the past, communication between the California National Guard and partnering agencies was difficult.

“Now, we have a Geospatial Information System (GIS) specialist teaching us how to better communicate with our partnering agencies,” said Dangerfield. “The flow of information is a whole lot better between us and agencies such as CAL FIRE and California Office of Emergency Services. What once used to take us a few days has been simplified to sending a couple of e-mails now.”

If there are any requests that require any rotary wing assistance, the State Aviation Office (SAO) steps in.

“I receive all Army Aviation rotary wing requests,” said U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Patrick Koeneke, a CH-47 Chinook pilot with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment, serving as the SAO representative in the JOC. Army helicopters such as the CH-47 Chinook, UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-72 Lakota are utilized for Cal Guard Army aviation missions.

Koeneke tracks requests for aviation missions, and everything from the time the aircraft are needed, take-offs and landings. He receives information from the Cal Guard flight facilities and constantly keeps the info updated. “I relay that information to the JOC and assist our partner agencies,” he said.

Handling multiple requests, especially during an emergency state of operations, can be both demanding and stressful.

“I don’t have a technique for stress, I just try to breathe and remain calm. Cool, calm and collective is what I tell myself,” said Koeneke.
 U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Akil Dangerfield, an all source analyst with the 149th Intelligence Squadron, Photo Ryan Sheldon

For some personnel, emergencies require long work hours.

“JOC hours change depending on the status that the state is in. Currently, we are on an emergency status, so our shifts will normally be 16-18 hours a day,” said Army Staff Sgt. James Doss, an infantryman with 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, who is serving as a JOC non-commissioned officer. “Once you get off your shift, you go home, get your rest and come back the next day ready to do it all over again until the mission tapers off or until it is complete. Once the emergency status is lifted and the smoke clears, we would go back to a steady state of operations.”

While it may seem the personnel in the JOC have been working together for months, some of them have just started gaining their experience.

“My experience in the Guard is still relatively new and most of my time has been in flight training, but I bring experience working in the SAO office,” said Koeneke. “I don’t have the answers to everything, but my training so far has helped guide me to the right people and the right connections.”

Personnel with different backgrounds bring their experience to the JOC.

“Coming from an infantry background, I feel like there are certain characteristics that you can carry over into this position. Being a disciplined Soldier, showing up on time are just a couple of traits that I carry with me,” said Doss. “There are daily reports and requirements that have to go out in a timely manner and we have to be able to crunch the numbers and push that information out to the entire state to ensure everyone in key positions are aware and have the most updated information.”

While fires, floods and earthquakes are emergencies that the Cal Guard has experienced before, COVID-19 has caused the JOC to create a new set of operational procedures.

“We can look directly at the COVID environment as the most challenging because it was something new to the individuals that were called upon to augment the JOC,” said Rankin.

COVID-19 has widely impacted the people of California, the nation, and the world. Conducting operations that cover every mile of California to support every Californian is an uncharted territory that this JOC team adapted to flawlessly.

“We’re used to operating in an environment where we are handling one to two emergencies at once, but during COVID and civil unrest, it became difficult to adequately address both missions at the same time,” said Rankin. “Fortunately, the personnel in the JOC were resilient to the rapid changes, and the staff and managers that were running and providing the operational training were able to mitigate risks.”

In the last five years, there would be much more of a gap between emergencies, but this year has seen multiple emergencies overlap. In addition, fire season in California has usually begun in the September/October timeframe, but this year kicked off in July.

“Since 2017, we are seeing much more of a surge in emergency operations,” said Rankin. “This year is just a shift in perspective and understanding that we are responsible to be ready and deploy at the governor’s request, and required to support any natural disaster, civil unrest and any assistance that our civilian counterparts need.”

Working in the JOC requires teamwork and selflessness for operations to run smoothly. It’s engrained into service members when they enter basic training. You always place the mission first, take care of your service members and then you take care of yourself.

“You always have that playing in the back of your mind," said Doss. “And the last part is me, you always put yourself last in the equation.”

 Ryan Sheldon

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