Coast Guard technicians manage lava threat in Hawaii

It’s not every day that a lava flow threatens Coast Guard operations, but crews operating in Hawaii have been battling the complex issues presented by the recent Kilauea Volcano eruption to ensure equipment remains capable and crews remain Semper Paratus.

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Written by Lt. Kenneth Fisher

As lava slowly approaches the town of Pahoa, it pushes through a fence marking a property boundary.  Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.
As lava slowly approaches the town of Pahoa, it pushes through a fence marking a property boundary. Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.

 

It’s not every day that a lava flow threatens Coast Guard operations, but crews operating in Hawaii have been battling the complex issues presented by the recent Kilauea Volcano eruption to ensure equipment remains capable and crews remain Semper Paratus.

A crew of electronics technicians from Electronic Systems Support Detachment Honolulu, recently dealt with these complexities first-hand. The crew traveled to Hawaii’s largest island, commonly referred to as “The Big Island” from their home station in Honolulu.

Their mission? Removing Coast Guard communication equipment that had been threatened by this recent volcanic eruption. With a Coast Guard operated Nationwide Differential GPS site just north of the lava’s path, time was of the essence.

“We had to determine which equipment could be plausibly removed and ensure our technicians understood proper removal and storage procedures,” said Lt. Chris Boykin, Base Honolulu’s C4IT maintenance officer.

Honolulu’s Base C4IT Department worked closely with the Coast Guard’s Navigation Center, and the Hawaii State Civil Defense to ensure the safety of all communication equipment, to include the DGPS site.

“The DGPS system is vital to maritime operations and enhances navigation in Hawaii’s commercial ports” said Lt. Cmdr. Kerry Feltner, Base Honolulu C4IT department head. “Ensuring the safety of its equipment during the recent lava threat ensures we can quickly restore the site once the threat has passed.”

ESD Honolulu’s Petty Officer 3rd Class Micah Williams points out an insulator while onsite to remove Differential GPS equipment. U.S. Coast guard photo.
ESD Honolulu’s Petty Officer 3rd Class Micah Williams points out an insulator while onsite to remove Differential GPS equipment. U.S. Coast guard photo.

Even though lava is slow moving, it can be difficult to predict the exact path of the lava flow and its many breakout flows. This presented a challenge for the system operators, to estimate the likelihood of lava disabling the site or making it inaccessible.

“If we made the decision to remove equipment from the site, we also had to determine an optimal time to take the site offline, we needed to balance the ability to keep the site operational as long as possible while allowing enough time for technicians to safely remove the equipment before lava got too close to the site,” commented Boykin.

In mid December, the lava flow had made its way to less than a mile from Pahoa and the communications site. With multiple breakouts north of the main lava flow and a risk of accompanying brush fires, the decision was made to take the site offline and remove equipment.

With guidance from subject matter experts, ESD Honolulu quickly assembled a tiger team to manage logistics and travel to Pahoa to remove electronics equipment.

“Knowing the site was facing an imminent threat, I quickly assembled my team and traveled to Pahoa to remove several equipment racks, antennas, and batteries, and collaborated with the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Kiska to utilize their shore-side storage facility,” explained Chief Petty Officer Andrew Pack, the tiger team leader.

With the equipment removed, system operators will continue to monitor the situation and will hopefully be able to restore the site once the current lava threat has diminished.

Shortly after the DGPS de-installation was completed due to the lava threat, technicians responded to an outage at a separate communications site that was caused by wintery conditions and high wind due to the sites high altitude.

Whether managing lava threats, tsunamis or wintery weather, Base Honolulu C4IT Department remains “Semper Paratus” to face the unique environmental challenges of the Hawaiian Islands.

An aerial photo from December 2014 shows lava approaching the town of Pahoa.  The circular plot of land near the upper left corner of the photo is the Coast Guard’s Pahoa DGPS site. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
An aerial photo from December 2014 shows lava approaching the town of Pahoa. The circular plot of land near the upper left corner of the photo is the Coast Guard’s Pahoa DGPS site. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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