Despite storm threat, treaty monitoring mission continued, uninterrupted

John Loftis and Mickey Ruehs, both members of the Air Force Technical Applications' contingency operations team, review checklists at AFTAC's alternate facility in Texas.  The duo was part of a group of Airmen who deployed to the center's 24/7 alternate location to transfer AFTAC's nuclear treaty monitoring mission from Patrick AFB, Fla., as the base prepared to evacuate for Hurricane Matthew that barreled up Florida's east coast Oct. 7, 2016.  (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

John Loftis and Mickey Ruehs, both members of the Air Force Technical Applications' contingency operations team, review checklists at AFTAC's alternate facility in Texas. The duo was part of a group of Airmen who deployed to the center's 24/7 alternate location to transfer AFTAC's nuclear treaty monitoring mission from Patrick AFB, Fla., as the base prepared to evacuate for Hurricane Matthew that barreled up Florida's east coast Oct. 7, 2016. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Airmen from the Air Force Technical Applications Center at Patrick AFB, Fla., lift a downed live oak tree after it was uprooted during Hurricane Matthew Oct. 7, 2016.  Picture from left to right:  Maj. Jeremiah Betz, 1st Lt. Pamela Zhang, Senior Airman Donelle Gibson, Capt. Taylor Youtsler and 1st Lt. Michael Duff. (U.S. Air Force photo by Susan A. Romano)

Airmen from the Air Force Technical Applications Center at Patrick AFB, Fla., lift a downed live oak tree after it was uprooted during Hurricane Matthew Oct. 7, 2016. Picture from left to right: Maj. Jeremiah Betz, 1st Lt. Pamela Zhang, Senior Airman Donelle Gibson, Capt. Taylor Youtsler and 1st Lt. Michael Duff. (U.S. Air Force photo by Susan A. Romano)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- As Hurricane Matthew churned into a Category 4 storm off Florida’s southeast coast, members of the Air Force Technical Applications Center here set evacuation plans in motion to ensure the center’s critical mission continued uninterrupted.

AFTAC, the Department of Defense’s sole organization dedicated to nuclear treaty monitoring and nuclear event detection, marshaled its contingency operations team Oct. 4 to deploy to its alternate operating facility in Texas. Nearly 50 Airmen departed the area to ensure the secondary location was up-and-running prior the base’s 100 percent shut down of power and digital connectivity.

“As we watched the storm strengthen in the Caribbean, we knew we needed to take steps to set up our alternate location as quickly as possible,” said Col. Steven M. Gorski, AFTAC commander. “Our national decision makers rely on us and our ability to provide uninterrupted 24/7 access to potential nuclear events around the world, and we go to great lengths to ensure we provide and deliver those capabilities to our senior leaders.”

Once the team fully established communication lines with its seismic systems and equipment, Gorski directed a complete evacuation of his staff.

Prior to the evacuation, Gorski activated two critical teams: a hurricane response team and a facilities recovery team. The teams were comprised of various subject matter experts who served as post-storm first responders once the wing commander deemed it safe to proceed. Members included experts from civil engineering, safety, facilities management, security, and numerous mission operators.

The hurricane remained a few miles east of AFTAC’s headquarters building as it traveled north during the early morning hours of Oct. 7. Winds were clocked as high as 120 mph, yet the treaty monitoring center sustained only minimal damage compared to the rest of Florida’s northeast coast.

“AFTAC’s Ciambrone Radiochemistry Lab took on water, and because of the requirement to turn off the HVAC system, the clean room experienced abnormally high humidity levels -- something we take steps to avoid to maintain the precision and integrity of the facility,” said Gorski. “We also had several trees uprooted and some roof damage to the lab, but the most important outcome from the storm was our entire workforce and their families remained unharmed. The safety of our people is always the number one goal.”

After the storm passed and base engineers deemed it safe to enter facilities, AFTAC’s hurricane response team returned to the center to regenerate power and reconnect dormant computer terminals and servers.

“It takes a great deal of effort to start systems back up,” said Col. Kathy Craver, AFTAC’s director of Mission Support. “We had a team of 18 people come in on the Columbus Day holiday to get our information technology equipment running for everyone who returned to work on Tuesday. I’m extremely pleased with what they were able to accomplish in 11 short hours. It’s no easy task, yet they did it with success and professionalism.”

Gorski also had nothing but praise across the board.

“When a contingency like this occurs – in this case, a major hurricane – success cannot be achieved without a great deal of teamwork. I’m extremely proud of AFTAC’s performance, and I’m particularly grateful for the support and dedication of our host wing, the 45th Space Wing. (Brig.) Gen. (Wayne) Monteith and his folks should be commended for going above and beyond to ensure the safety of all our Airmen – military, civilians and our family members. We can’t thank them enough.”

AFTAC’s contingency team is expect to return by the end of the week.