Command post: commander's eyes and ears on call 24/7

The 30th Space Wing Command Post, led by Lt. Col. Pell Thompson, is the wing commander's operations center.  Command post controllers serve in Vandenberg's crisis response and management, and they deploy to support operations around the world.  The command post is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to fully support the needs of 14th Air Force, the 30th Space Wing and Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The 30th Space Wing Command Post, led by Lt. Col. Pell Thompson, is the wing commander's operations center. Command post controllers serve in Vandenberg's crisis response and management, and they deploy to support operations around the world. The command post is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to fully support the needs of 14th Air Force, the 30th Space Wing and Vandenberg Air Force Base.

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The time was about 1:30 p.m. when 30th Space Wing Command Post got the call from fire dispatch. A fire was raging in the woods near building 12000. Without rain for weeks, the tinder-dry grass beneath the trees quickly spread the blaze.

Responding to the call, Airman 1st Class Rhea Amante and Senior Airman Alexis King in the command post pulled white binders from the shelves and immediately poured over a series of checklists. Step by step they worked their way down the list, notifying commanders and first responders.

Much like the firefighters on scene, the command post is a 24 hour operations center--as much a part of an initial response team as security forces or explosive ordnance disposal. Serving as the eyes and ears of the 30th Space Wing commander, they pieced together the fire dispatch's information coming in to them over the radio, then informed commanders of the status of the threat and the response.

They needed to act quickly. Hundreds of people in the communications squadron worked only a few hundred yards away. They would be in danger if the fire spread.

First, the 30th Mission Support Group acting commander had to decide whether or not to call the Emergency Operations Center. Airman Amante and Airman King informed him that an acre of trees was on fire near the space communications building, and nearly two dozen firefighters were trying to get through the thick trees, get to the fire and put it out.

The controllers were ready to recall the EOC representatives, contact the ambulance in the case of an injury, or the 76th Helicopter Squadron to prepare them for fire suppression if needed. But the fire was small, and the firefighters and the 30th MSG commander decided not to recall the EOC or call the commander's senior staff to action.

As the firefighters bulldozed a fire break around the burn, smoke drifted across Cocheo Park to the 30th Space Wing headquarters building. The smell of burnt pine and eucalyptus floated up to the second floor and through the four security doors into the windowless command post control room.

The console flashed, phones rang and radios squealed in between directions from the firefighters on-scene. If it wasn't for the information coming in over the wire, the scent would be the only way for those in the room to know there was a fire.

"We only know what we're told, which is why we ask a lot of questions when we call," said Senior Master Sgt. Shawn Foster. Needing to rely on information from the wing, the command post is most effective when it gets the information responders need to act, the 30th SW Command Post superintendent said.

The controller's main objective is situational awareness and information to relay back to those making critical decisions, like whether to evacuate or call in a rescue.

"A lot of agencies fail to realize that when we call and ask the questions, it's not for the command post; it's for the wing commander," Sergeant Foster said.

Sergeant Foster is part of a small, cohesive team composed of an officer-in-charge and five Airmen who support the two shift-working controllers on console. Command post controllers at Vandenberg have a unique mission.

"Because this is Space Command, we don't do what command post usually does," Airman Amante said. At a base with a flying mission, command post controllers conduct flight following, she said, where they would take accountability of the aircraft coming in and out of base. Because of the absence of fixed wing aircraft at Vandenberg AFB, flight following is done by base operations.

"But we were trained to talk to the aircraft, so we can do that mission when deployed," Airman Amante said.

The 30th SW usually has two command post controllers deployed at any one time. Master Sgt. Louis Alcoser recently deployed in support of U.S. Marines in the Iraq province of Al Anbar. Staff Sgt. Crystal McNabb just returned from a deployment to the 376th Air and Space Expeditionary Wing in Kyrgyzstan.

Training is the reason the controllers are capable and competent.

"There's always training going on," said Senior Airman Selam Kidane, 30th SW command post controller. "Every command post mission is different, so we're always training."

Not only do they serve a specialized mission since they are at a space base; their mission here is unique.

"We're more than just the CP for the wing, we're Vandenberg's command post," said Lt. Col. Pell Thompson, chief of 30th SW CP. That means carrying the responsibility of command post for the 14th Air Force (Air Forces Strategic-Space).

"All 14th subordinate units report through us," he said. That means the controllers keep accountability of commanders in the 14th, including the 50th Space Wing at Schriever AFB, Colo., the 45th Space Wing at Patrick AFB, Fla., and the 614th Air and Space Operations Center here at Vandenberg.

During the fire, a report came in from Schriever regarding the accountability of their commander. The controllers had to handle the input at the same time they coordinated response to the fire. Even when many inputs come in from other bases, they sometimes cannot wait until the crisis at hand is resolved. It means the possibility for a very hectic scene at any given moment.

"When someone walks in and sees us idle, that's the best way it can be," Sergeant Foster said. "When you see us with our books cracked open, then you'll know something's wrong."

With a small fire like this one, the response was light impact. The controllers didn't need to use many of their tools to inform base personnel of an emergency incident or accident like the base siren, the automatic pop-ups on the computers or the crash phone network, all of which are controlled at the command post console. They also talk over the Centracom, which commanders and first responders use to communicate with handheld radios. The controllers learn all the specific techniques to accomplish their mission right here at Vandenberg, earning a certification that entitles them to work on console.

"It's an intense responsibility," Sergeant Foster said. "When we have an airman basic right out of tech school, within 60 days he'll be at the console gathering information for the CC."

As their leader, Colonel Thompson elected to earn controller certification because the responsibility of the voice of the wing commander is around the clock. Command post controllers work long shifts--12 hours--constantly on the alert to respond to an accident or incident.

Four hours after the fire began, it is finally extinguished. Although the firefighters return to the firehouse, up in the command post console, the controllers remain. The charred ground cools, and the day turns to night as another pair of controllers begins their shift, on the ready and prepared to react for whatever comes next.