If not for the motion of the rotor blades, it would seem that the U.S. Air Force CH-47 Chinook helicopter is floating through air, frozen in a majestic pose. On land, four military personnel attach the thick chains to suspend a 3.26-ton box from the belly of the aircraft. The men check the couplings to make sure everything is in order, and only then does the Chinook take flight with its precious cargo.
This time, the trip will be brief. In only minutes, the box will return to Honduras’ Colonel José Enrique Soto Cano Air Base, headquarters of the Honduran Air Force, the country’s Air Force Academy and U.S. Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-Bravo).
This is an operational demonstration for the Pre-positioned Expeditionary Assistance Kits (PEAK), a modular system designed to provide disaster response teams with sustainable, essential services, such as potable water, communications and electricity. It can enable situational awareness during the first 72 hours after an earthquake, a hurricane, a landslide or any other emergency situation.
AN IDEA BECOMES REALITY
PEAK originated in an initiative by U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Science, Technology and Experimentation Division to create a system that could strengthen the capacity of partner nations in Latin America to respond to natural disasters. The idea became a reality with funding from the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the technical assistance of National Defense University’s Center for Technology and National Security Policy, based in Washington, D.C.
Elmer L. Roman, the oversight executive for building partnerships in the Rapid Fielding Directorate at the OSD, explained that the department supports the civilian agencies that offer aid to other countries when natural disasters occur. PEAK enables the U.S. Department of Defense to more effectively assist agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department when they receive requests for collaboration from other countries.
The concept, which was launched in March 2010, focused on the lessons learned during the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. Haiti’s earthquake inspired the idea of designing a system that could be pre-positioned in regions prone to natural disasters, such as Central America, or could be sent in advance when, for example, it becomes known that a powerful hurricane is going to strike a particular area.
PEAK can provide assistance to disaster response teams during the first three days following a natural disaster. During this critical time frame, a series of common factors come together, such as interrupted electrical service, contaminated water supplies and communications problems, among others. PEAK can provide smartphones and enable responders to take photos, record audio clips and write text messages marked with global positioning coordinates, all of which is sent to a centralized server over a Broadband Global Area Network. “The system enables first responders to collect information that will serve as a guide for the larger response,” said Phil Stockdale, the technical manager in charge of the project on behalf of the National Defense University.
From anywhere in the world, authorized users can conduct event searches through the user-friendly Tactical Ground Reporting (TiGR) interface, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the same agency responsible for the beginnings of the Internet 40 years ago. TiGR marks the location on a satellite map where the responders captured the information.
In less than a year, the team headed by Stockdale designed, built, and tested the PEAK system in the Central American country of Honduras. The first version underwent rigorous testing in February 2011 at JTF-Bravo, thanks to the interest showed by the base commanders and the nation’s government, which sent personnel with experience in emergency situations.
In late August and early September 2011, after implementing the modifications suggested by the operators of the system, the technical group returned to JTF-Bravo for the final field test. “The PEAK system aims to build partner nations’ capacities,” said Lieutenant Colonel John Ferrell, operations manager for the project with SOUTHCOM, who described the cooperation between JTF-Bravo, the Honduran Armed Forces, and Honduras’ federal emergency management agency to be “paramount.”
During the PEAK demonstration in early September 2011, Roman announced that the system’s first two kits will be positioned at Soto Cano Air Base. PEAK supports humanitarian aid, disaster relief, countering illicit trafficking and capacity building of partner nations in Central America. It will be used by JTF-Bravo’s Central America Survey and Assessment Team when circumstances require it and when any of the seven Central American countries requests assistance, according to Lieutenant Colonel Keith Pritchard, U.S. Army Forces Battalion Commander at JTF-Bravo.