'Space Cowboys' help with Colorado's floods

By Staff ReportOctober 22, 2013

'Space Cowboys' Help with Colorado's Floods
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'Space Cowboys' Help with Colorado's Floods
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'Space Cowboys' Help with Colorado's Floods
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'Space Cowboys' help with Colorado's floods
4 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Maj. Robert Heslin, Army Space Support Team team leader, 117th Space Battalion, reviews project sites of Colorado flood damage with
Keith Schafer, Colorado Department of Transportation operations director during the flooding that struck Colorado in S... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- In mid-September, the state of Colorado received more than a year's worth of rain in a matter of a few hours. The influx of rain created a 100-year flood across the northeastern part of the state, closing dozens of state highways, damaging dozens of bridges, and impacting thousands of lives.

As flooding continued across the state, the Colorado Department of Transportation was not only facilitating continued highway closures, but beginning to try to determine the extent of damages to the impacted highway infrastructure in an effort to start rebuilding.

With limited resources to evaluate areas with minimal accessibility, CDOT reached out to the Colorado Army National Guard for help. The 117th Space Battalion, called the "Space Cowboys," is a specialized unit based in Colorado Springs consisting of Army Space Support Teams. It was brought in to directly support the National Guard Engineer Coordination Center, or ECC, and help assess infrastructure damage utilizing unclassified commercial satellite imagery.

The seven-member team supporting CDOT and the Colorado flood recovery included: Maj. Robert Heslin, team leader; Capt. Chris Meyer, operations officer; Staff Sgt. Will Eger, lead geospatial engineer; Pvt. Miranda Yost, geospatial engineer; Sgt. Nathan Faith, satellite communications specialist; Spc. Lauren Klotz, information technology specialist; and Sgt. Alex Paxton, analyst.

"For the flooding recovery efforts in Colorado, the team worked directly with the ECC and CDOT to identify highway infrastructure damage, create operational maps of the highway corridors to help plan infrastructure reconstruction, produce individual project site assessments utilizing commercial satellite imagery, and oversee the National Guard construction efforts," said Lt. Col. Martin Bortolutti, 117th Space Battalion commander. "The team also coordinated with CDOT, the State Emergency Operations Center, and Federal Emergency Management Agency geospatial specialists to share geospatial and map data among several state and federal agencies."

To achieve mission objectives, the team deployed with their ARSST-tactical set consisting of an independent satellite communication terminal that offered broadband communications capabilities and space operating systems.

"These provided the capability to download current satellite imagery to provide the CDOT incident commander and his staff with incident awareness and assessment by using the imagery of each of the damaged or destroyed areas as overall route reconnaissance of highways that had been completely cut off," Bortolutti said.

CDOT deputy director of operations, Scot Cuthbertson, who was tasked with leading recovery efforts through Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper's Infrastructure Recovery Force, is a former member of the Colorado Army National Guard and a former commander of the 117th Space Battalion.

"His understanding of the ARSST mission and capabilities was critical to the integration of the team with CDOT," Bortolutti said. "Jonny Olson, CDOT incident commander, and Keith Schafer, CDOT operations director, were very supportive of the integration of ARSST capabilities and products into the overall recovery operations."

The 117th Space Battalion is a specialized unit, and is the most deployed unit in the National Guard.

"The 117th Space Battalion has an extensive background in the application of satellite technology, and it is the only unit of its kind in the entire National Guard," Bortolutti said. "We have consistently rotated teams every nine months into Iraq and Afghanistan since 2006 as part of our ongoing mission.

"Historically speaking, the ARSST provides combat commanders with the staff expertise necessary to fully utilize the space component of communications, precision engagement, geospatial intelligence, environmental effects on satellite communications, and overhead persistent infrared imaging capabilities to efficiently and effectively communicate, navigate, target the enemy, and protect forces," he continued. "These areas of expertise are also relevant to providing assistance during national and local disasters as adapted capabilities to those without such impressive resources."

Most recently, the team provided assistance to authorities during the Black Forest and West Fork fires in Colorado during the summer. In May, they provided assistance via limited remote support for the tornadoes that hit Moore, Okla. And in 2012, the team was called upon to provide assistance during Colorado's High Park and Waldo Canyon fires.

"This was the second time this year the 117th Space Battalion deployed a space team to assist in civil support and recovery efforts," Bortolutti said. "We remains committed to assisting Colorado in a time of need. It's evident that Army space capability adds value to civil support efforts."

The 117th Space Battalion falls under the 89th Troop Command Brigade, Colorado Army National Guard, based out of Denver, Colo. The 117th works closely with the Army's 1st Space Brigade.

Editor's note: This article was adapted from a press release written by Ashley

Mohr, public relations manager, Colorado Department of Transportation Regions 3 and 4.