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Illinois ANG makes lifesaving connections in Puerto Rico

Staff Sgt. Helmut Woodberry of the Illinois Air National Guard’s 126th Communications Flight works on a radio frequency control unit in a Joint Incident Site Communications Capability site at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico. The Air National Guard is working with many federal, territory and local agencies in response to Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Staff Sgt. Helmut Woodberry of the Illinois Air National Guard’s 126th Communications Flight works on a radio frequency control unit in a Joint Incident Site Communications Capability site at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico. The Air National Guard is working with many federal, territory and local agencies in response to Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Staff Sgt. Michael Raatz of the Illinois Air National Guard’s 126th Communications Flight fine tunes a radio frequency control unit in a Joint Incident Site Communications Capability site at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico. The Air National Guard is working with many federal, territory and local agencies in response to Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Staff Sgt. Michael Raatz of the Illinois Air National Guard’s 126th Communications Flight fine tunes a radio frequency control unit in a Joint Incident Site Communications Capability site at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico. The Air National Guard is working with many federal, territory and local agencies in response to Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

MUNIZ AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Puerto Rico -- The Illinois Air National Guard is helping to provide critical communications to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. 

The hurricane devastated many parts of the island knocking out power across the entire island and rendering communications networks inoperable. The lack of reliable communications – no voice phone calls, no internet, no text messaging – has severely hampered the relief effort.

The Illinois Air National Guard arrived on the island on Sept. 23, three days after Maria hit. Within the day following, the eight-member team from the 126th Communications Flight set up a Joint Incident Site Communications Capability (JISCC) adjacent to the Puerto Rico Air National Guard’s 156th Wing operations building at Muniz Air National Guard Base. This team of Airmen is now providing emergency communications capability to the wing’s command post and 24-hour support.

“We have a satellite link that allows the local command to communicate with agencies back on the mainland,” explained Capt. Chris Kruse, the flight commander. “This gives the wing commander and his senior leaders reliable connection with the outside world.”

Across Puerto Rico, a total of three JISCCs have been set up at military installations, providing essential communications capability. Since so many cell phone towers, telephone lines and other pieces of infrastructure were damaged or destroyed in the storm, intra-island communications is one of the greatest challenges facing the various agencies involved in the response. 

“This is by far the most damaged area I have ever seen from a natural disaster,” Kruse said. 

At a hardened box full of radio circuitry inside a tent at the JISCC site, Staff Sgt. Michael Raatz works to ensure that the various connections made by the JISCC are constantly fine tuned.

“We know that people are really relying on this connection,” Raatz said. “Right now, it is one of the few reliable systems available to the local command.”

The 126th Communications Flight is based at Scott Air Force Base, in suburban St. Louis.
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