By Ms. Bryanna Poulin (USACE)August 5, 2019
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii - Under a scorching sun a Soldiers meticulously checks his tools. An arm's length away is a boisterous generator that interrupts the sound of black tar gravel crunching beneath his boots.
After restoring electricity to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Honolulu District Emergency Operations Center (EOC) during a simulated power outage June 21, the 249th Engineer Battalion (Alpha Company) 3rd Power Station Prime Power Specialist Staff Sgt. Jason Pallack believes the most crucial part of his job during disaster recovery operations is evaluating the power needs of a building.
"You can't do every part of an install by yourself, there are two ends," Pallack said. "Splitting work gets more done because sometimes there isn't enough room on a job for three elbows and an extra set of hands."
As a culmination of months of training and preparation, the 3rd Power Station conducted a platoon training exercise readies to assume its role as Primary National Response Framework (NRF) platoon by conducting an assessment of the Honolulu District EOC.
"We (3rd Power Station) turned the power off at Honolulu District's EOC with the Directorate of Public Works (DPW) assistance simulating a power outage," 3rd Power Station Technician, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Miguel E. Puente said. "Each team had to work together in a disaster scenario in restoring power."
Puente said the Pre-Installation, Inspections Teams (PIIT) rotated through assessing the facility, as well as installing the 36-kilowatt generator delivered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The training helps assess the unit's reaction during natural disasters and supporting the unit's capabilities providing prime electrical power and electrical systems expertise in support of military operations and the National Response Framework (NRF).
"Supporting emergency response, sustaining lives, and restoring critical infrastructure are the Corps three top priorities during a disaster," Honolulu District Commander Kathryn P. Sanborn said. "In support of the Corps priorities, hundreds of people deploy each year, providing technical engineer expertise."
Both Puente and Pallack agree the 249th Engineer Battalion is unlike any unit in the Army or the Department of Defense, offering a distinct and unique Prime Power missions skillset. During full spectrum operations, the 249th Engineer Battalions (Prime Power) provides commercial-level power to military units and federal relief organizations throughout the world.
"There is no other unit in the Army that handles and maintains medium-voltage units," Puente concluded. "From the agencies and the organizations we work and train with, the 249th Engineer Battalion's unique scope and capabilities are unlike any Army unit I've been assigned to."
The joint training with USACE also allows the 3rd Power Station to demonstrate their knowledge and experiences before deploying and providing NRF expertise.
"The unit validates each team before any team assumes NRF platoon responsibilities," Puente said. "First, the teams conduct cumulative training that concludes with a major training exercise like this one, and then the platoon is validated by the 249th Engineer Battalion."
When the 3rd Power Station assumed NRF validation in the past, they supported missions like Super Typhoon Yutu in Saipan. Their support included providing estimations for generator installations at critical facilities throughout the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and installing multiple pump stations and wells providing water to residents.
"The local people impacted by disasters depend on agencies like us who respond," Puente said. "The training today is because the public depends on power restoration to critical facilities in disasters."
Puente's experience in planning, supervising, and coordinating the construction of base camps and internment facilities makes him familiar with the challenges a unit faces during a disaster.
"Communication is always a challenge," Puente stressed. "But the unit has multiple contingencies in place as redundancies helping to alleviate the pain from the loss of communication due to power outages, geographical difficulties, as well as system failures."
For the team, verbal communication is what helps build camaraderie amongst the Soldiers. The more the Soldiers talk to each other, the more comfortable they are to provide input or share ideas.
"The training heavily emphasizes communication between the two team members," Puente stressed. "Usually, one team member is a technical expert, and the other is the assistant. This training helps cross-train the less technically proficient team member to improve their versatility."
Cross-training teaches Soldiers how to fill multiple roles and different platoon positions, helping to instill teamwork so they can lean on each other for support.
"You need your partner in training and disasters because it takes two people for an install," Puente emphasized. "Communicating with your partner makes it easier to finish the individual tasks without worrying about their partner."
Pallack and his partner took turns with other teams of Soldiers inspecting the building and installing the generator. Having more experience than his training partner does, Pallack focused training on giving specific guidance and dividing the work in half.
Despite the tight work space, the Soldiers have a designated trainer standby when they need help.
"Even though this was a training event, the Soldiers understood they could stop and ask the Observers/Controller-Trainers (OC-T) questions without impacting the real world," Puente said.
The primary goal for the OC-T is coaching, teaching and mentoring, and training units using real-life scenarios. With the OC-T's help, the Soldiers learn faster, think as a team, and anticipate any problems or needs happening in a real disaster.
"Every natural disaster is different, and by practicing conducting assessments Soldiers learn the expectation," said Puente. "Plus, it gives the team a chance to make and learn from their mistakes in a controlled environment with the help of their side."
Regardless of the training systems used, there is no way to predict a Soldiers response in a disaster. In spite of this, Soldiers participate in exercises like vehicle break down, electrical shock or communication issues enabling the trainers to gauge the Soldiers response.
"Never underestimate the importance of hands-on training," Puente explained. "There is nothing better for Soldiers than to visually see and get their hands on the equipment watching how it all comes together in the big picture."
By using hands-on training to perform a specific training task, the Soldiers can later apply their knowledge to real-world situations.
"I knew the theory of power assessments before the training," Pallack said. "But the information sunk in after I walked the (Corps') facility, finding every system needing power, and learning the purpose of the building during an emergency."
Understanding the training material helps Soldiers perform their job better and build assurances when they know the responsibilities of their duties. Most Soldiers have some form of weakness, but bringing everyone together reduces the weak links and teams work together without the constant help and supervision from leadership.
"The training is beneficial as the primary and most important part of our job is assessing the buildings power needs," Pallack said. "Now I have more confidence if I need to make connections with equipment that I'm not intimately familiar with."
Puente said the exercise was a success, with teams conducting an assessment and installing the generator at the Honolulu District facility. Puente stressed FEMA's, DPW's support was instrumental as the training occurred without any issues or safety violations.