PONCE, PUERTO RICO --
For some, the idea of spending hours hundreds of feet above the world suspended by only a rope and harness is a terrifying thought.
For the airmen of the 85th Engineering and Installation Squadron, 38th Cyberspace Engineering Installation Group, 68th Cyberspace Wing from Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, it’s just another day at the office.
The 85th EIS airmen climbed high into the Puerto Rican air to repair radio communications damaged by Hurricane Maria October 20, 2017 at Cerro de Punta mountain near Ponce, Puerto Rico.
“We’ve actually heard a lot of stories since we got here about people who, in an emergency, haven’t been able to call 911, or if they do call 911 a dispatcher has no way of getting help out to them,” said Capt. Jose Gutierrez del Arroyo, the deputy flight commander and specialized engineer of the 85th EIS. “This is going to alleviate some of those issues throughout the island and hopefully get some help to people that need it the most.”
The airmen’s mission is a large facet of the Joint Force Land Component Command’s mission to reestablish communications and emergency services in Puerto Rico. They will travel across the island to several different radio tower sites to repair radio communication systems for emergency personnel and first responders.
“What most would consider a redundant communication system in the [mainland] United States, they don’t even have here,” said Capt. Ryan Headrick, the operations flight commander of the 85th EIS. “As soon as we get that back up, I think it will definitely help that level of communication.”
Many of the sites lay in remote locations with little to no road access. Due to these conditions paired with the damage left behind by Hurricane Maria, logistics have been a challenge, Headrick said.
“It has definitely been tough,” Headrick said. “We’re working with a bunch of different mission partners out here like FEMA, and Army North. It has been a lot of coordination and figuring things out as we go.”
Cerro de Punta, the highest peak in Puerto Rico, sits in an austere location with hazardous terrain and limited access to vehicles. The 85th EIS had to coordinate with FEMA and other government agencies for a precision airdrop to get their container full of harnesses, safety equipment, and supplies onto the mountain.
The airmen are scheduled to stay at the location for four days, where they will clear debris and potential hazards from the tower, install antennas for land-mobile radio systems, repair any existing radio systems for local emergency personnel, and repair communication antennas for local networks before moving to another site.
“It feels great to be out here,” Headrick said. “We can already start to see some of the impact that we’re having. Once we get it back up and actually see radios working, that’s huge for us to be able to see our impact in action.”
The airmen with the 85th aren’t limited to just radio communications and tower climbing. They also install internet systems, run cable to connect communications between buildings, and have experts on staff for radar, radio, electrical, and engineering projects. They recently modernized communications throughout the White House as part of the 18 Acres Project.
Gutierrez del Arroyo is a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and is excited to be able to contribute to efforts on the island and assist the local affected population. His entire family looked for ways to contribute to the relief efforts after the hurricane hit, he said.
“There was no way of getting supplies out here,” Gutierrez del Arroyo said. “There was no way to fly stuff in. You couldn’t even fly yourself in commercially, so all of a sudden this opportunity opens up for me to deploy here to Puerto Rico and do some of the stuff we actually do around the world.”
Now, Gutierrez del Arroyo and the 85th EIS plan to do their part to support government efforts in Puerto Rico through repairing emergency communication systems across the island.
“I’m really excited to be here. I feel blessed to be here, honestly,” Gutierrez del Arroyo said. “Everyone’s on the same page here trying to get one single mission done, which is really cool to see.“