Leadership in the face of crisis

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

JFK once noted that the Chinese character for crisis is a combination of the characters for danger and opportunity. While the recent wildfires were undoubtedly a dangerous crisis, they also posed an opportunity for Team Vandenberg to demonstrate our ability to calmly and professionally handle a dynamic and chaotic situation.

The fire began the night before a scheduled launch. While the Vandenberg Fire Department battled the fire, myself and countless others entered crew rest expecting the fire would be extinguished in time for the launch. It was not. For that mission, I was assigned to one of five optics crews each tasked with operating a 5 million dollar mobile optics system. These specialized cameras are placed at key points on the launch range for each operation, and allow the launch agency to analyze the performance of their rocket after the mission.

We assembled at the planned 3:30 a.m. rally time to learn that the fire still raged, the launch was canceled, and one of our systems was in the path of the fire. I called the Emergency Operations Center for permission to enter South Base and retrieve the threatened equipment. While the Fire Chief evaluated the fire conditions at that location, I asked my team of civilian optics technicians for volunteers to make the run.  Every one of them stepped forward.  Within an hour, the system was safely back in our facility.

Less than 48 hours later, the fire took a turn and was headed towards more of our optics systems. I got the call at about 2 a.m. informing me that we needed to retrieve the remaining four systems from South Base immediately. I contacted one of the optics supervisors who had volunteered to retrieve the first system, and he called in one of his folks. The three of us spent the next four hours shuttling 20 million dollars’ worth of equipment out of the area and back to North Base.

These anecdotes represent a tiny slice of the efforts put forth by Team Vandenberg and others during the wildfire crisis. Certainly the more than 1,000 firefighters who battled the fires directly faced far more dangerous circumstances and worked many more hours than our small equipment retrieval team. Electricians from the Civil Engineer Squadron raced to de-energize high-voltage power lines before the fire reached them. Dozens of personnel canceled personal obligations with little notice to staff the Crisis Action Team, Emergency Operations Center, Unit Control Centers, and countless other activities throughout the fire response and even now during the recovery. Many were unexpectedly asked to work long and overnight shifts.

I watched much of the crisis play out from the Emergency Operations Center, a unique vantage point allowing visibility of the strategic efforts of the Crisis Action Team, as well as the tactical fire response and protection efforts. Everywhere I looked, I saw quiet professionals acknowledge the danger then seize the opportunity to expertly and professionally execute their piece of the mission. It made me proud to be part of Team Vandenberg.