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NEWS | March 15, 2010

There’s no business like snow business: ‘Snow cats’ and crews claw their way to the rescue

By Spc. Joseph K. VonNida Colorado National Guard

Throughout the year, Colorado news is littered with stories of search and rescue operations in the unpredictable Rocky Mountains. Harsh weather and natural disasters can impact travel and the daily lives of people in all areas of the state. State and local emergency response teams often have their hands full. But what happens when resources are exhausted or emergency teams can't get in deep enough to provide assistance?

Chances are, they call the Colorado National Guard.

According to Army Staff Sgt. Craig Higgins, operations noncommissioned officer for the Colorado National Guard Joint Operations Center, the CO-JOC averages more than 30 calls for military assistance in life-saving operations across the state each year. During these operations, UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopter crews bring aid from above while military Humvees transport aid on the ground; but there is another, little-known resource within the Guard just waiting to be called for duty: the Colorado National Guard Snow Response Teams.

Local responders, local missions

Colorado has four SRTs staged at various locations across the state. Equipped with new M973A1 Small Unit Support Vehicles, aka SUSVs, these teams and their mighty vehicles are one of the most versatile, rigid and dependable assets available to aid emergency responders and civilians in need.

"The SRT was developed over 12 years ago in response to Colorado blizzards … as a quick response to be able to get much-needed help out to the local communities," said Command Sgt. Maj. Barry Pleshek, the maintenance supervisor at Maneuver Area Equipment Training Site 64 (MATES 64) at Fort Carson, Colo., during a training mission March 14, 2010.

Seven of 10 total vehicles are clad in digital camouflage and emergency lights. Each sports a recognizable CONG logo and the words "Colorado National Guard" in bright yellow – eliminating the notion that it is anything other than an emergency vehicle.

"We put additional lighting on the vehicle, which gives us improved nighttime capabilities," said Pleshek. "Most people are familiar with emergency equipment. The red and blue strobe lights … help identify who we are so that citizens know … We are there to help."

"This equipment does not have a federal mission and that is the key. It is strictly for the state," said Michael "Mickey" Hunt, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Military and Veteran Affairs. "There are not many states that have this type equipment or crew who can dispatch for a variety of missions including EMAC (Emergency Management Assistance Compact) requests."

Ratified by Congress and signed into law in 1996, the EMAC is an interstate mutual aid agreement that provides a mechanism for sharing personnel, equipment and resources among states during emergencies and disasters. EMAC has traditionally been used by states for National Guard, emergency management and other types of response assistance. 

Real-world rescues

In the past 12 years, Colorado National Guard SRTs have ventured out into a significant number of blizzards to provide assistance to local emergency responders.

"In December 2006, we were called down to the southeast corner of Colorado for an area that was impacted by a heavy blizzard storm," said Pleshek. "We were able to go in and support local agencies that were ill-equipped to be able to handle the situation."

The SRTs are capable of responding to an incident in less than two hours. Their last major civil response was in Lamar, Colo., during the blizzard of 2007.

Sgt. 1st Class Bill Dulaney, a wage leader mechanic for MATES 64, and Sgt. Major John Schafer were the first civil responders to show up in Lamar from outside the town.

They drove from La Junta with the SUSV and rescued people along the way. In the meantime, they received a call to assist a 70-year-old man who had broken his hip. On the way to the man's house, they picked up a paramedic.

"It took us 14 hours of straight drive time to go from La Junta to Lamar, which was only about 10 miles," said Dulaney. "Everyone said we couldn't do it, but we proved them wrong."

Mission capable 'cats'

The SUSV is similar to a "snow cat" in that it is fully tracked. However, because of its design, it has the capability of hauling cargo as well as passengers, and can traverse nearly any terrain, including water.

 "It's unique," said Staff Sgt. Thurman Foster, a technician at MATES 64. "No other vehicle in our fleet in the Colorado National Guard can do the things these vehicles can do."

The SUSV has a front and rear cab that can comfortably seat 11 personnel in addition to three crew members. Its all-rubber tracks enable the SRT to support civil authorities during emergency relief efforts during floods, fires, blizzards, tornadoes and a variety of other disasters, both natural and manmade.

"There is no limitation to what we can respond to; it's just a matter of where they need us," said Staff Sgt. Roger Alicea, an electronics technician for MATES 64.

In addition, the SUSV has minimal environmental impact.

"The SUSV is diesel engine-driven, so it has normal emissions," said Foster. "It (also) has a turbo in it so the fuel burns more efficiently, and the footprint is minimal – about two pounds per square inch."

Dulaney stated that the SUSV is often used by the military as a tactical vehicle. It can be configured as an ambulance with medical capabilities, as well as a command vehicle with communications equipment and they are currently one of the Army's primary vehicles for transporting troops and equipment in Alaska. Similar models are used by coalition forces in Afghanistan.

In high gear on flat terrain, the SUSV is capable of speeds up to 30 miles per hour, and in deep snow, 5 to 15 mph. With an added winch, it's self-recoverable and is stocked with enough tools to complete almost any necessary on-the-spot repair. It's also equipped with medical supplies and a Stokes litter.

Some SRT members keep their own skis on board, too.

"We never know what situation we are going to run into," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dan Aragon, a full-time technician at MATES 64. "We have to equip it for the situation. … You have to know this equipment inside and out because when were out there its only us … only you and the elements."

With the additional equipment the SRT members carry, they can reach even the most remote locations.

"We use tractor trailer trucks to move these as far as we can. Once (the trucks) get to their limitation, that's when we know it's time to offload the SUSV and move it inland so that we can get to our destination point," said Aragon. He added that a vehicle can also be sling-loaded and flown by helicopter into high, mountainous terrain.

Rare relationships

In addition to a unique mode of transportation, the members of the SRT also have a unique relationship in which both rank and experience matter.

"We're a tight group. Everybody knows each other's job," said Pleshek. "Each one of us has a unique knowledge base – communications, electronics or mechanical aspect of the vehicle. You're your own help."

As with much of the National Guard, the SRT members come from various backgrounds.

"Our team has many cogs to its wheel … fire rescue, maintenance," said Aragon. "Everybody on the team brings something to the pie."

With all this in mind, what does the Colorado community need to know about the SRT and its amazing machines?

Always ready, always here

 "We can go anywhere at any time, whether it be during a flood or in the snow, with the SUSV or other equipment that the Guard has. We have a lot of equipment and this is what is it used for: to serve our community," said Dulaney.

"The National Guard in particular strives to be as diverse in its response capabilities as possible," said Alicea. "With the SUSV … we can respond to just about anything. As a resource it is invaluable. I am privileged to be part of this team."

"I'm very passionate about community involvement in the National Guard. That's why I enlisted and that's why we're here. We are a homeland defense. We are here for our state and here to help our citizens," said Pleshek.

 "Everyone on our team is here because they believe in supporting the fellow man," said Aragon.

"We are George Washington's Army," said Foster. "We are the Minute Men …We are doing what was done 400 years ago. Now we have tracks to do it."

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