Alaska National Guard calls up 65 members for state coronavirus response, hundreds more on standby

Members of 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment, Alaska Army National Guard, conduct hoist training near Knik and Colony Glaciers. (Photo by Capt. Amy B. Slinker, Alaska Army National Guard / Flickr)

The Alaska National Guard is mobilizing to assist with the state’s coronavirus response, putting dozens of volunteer Guard members on active duty.

The Guard’s planes and helicopters could be key to helping sick people in rural Alaska, said Jeremy Zidek, public information officer with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“Transporting patients to advanced medical facilities is the primary thing that they’re preparing for right now,” Zidek said.

The state is coordinating with the Coast Guard and air ambulance services, as well as private air carriers that have already been used to fly test kits and personal protective equipment around Alaska, Zidek said.

Read the latest coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in Alaska.

The state’s Unified Command could call on the Guard to transport supplies by air or land, to build temporary shelters or produce clean drinking water, and, generally, to have manpower available for a wide range of tasks, Zidek said.

Members of a separate but related volunteer group, the Alaska Defense Force, have been working at an Anchorage warehouse to help organize personal protective equipment and other supplies from the national stockpile, things like gloves, visors, gowns, masks, and hand sanitizer, and putting them into loads for shipment, Zidek said. They’ve also been helping distribute declaration forms for people entering the state who must quarantine themselves and declare where they are doing so under Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s coronavirus health mandates, he said.

Orders for bigger missions will come from the governor, likely at the request of local governments in need, Zidek said.

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“And when their local capabilities have been overwhelmed, then we look at utilizing other state agencies or the Alaska National Guard to fulfill that mission,” Zidek said. “In some cases, we may be able to call upon a private industry to do that. But often during disasters, the Guard has to come in and fulfill those critical roles.”

The Guard has called-up 65 members since last week, according to Alaska National Guard Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead. About 700 Guard members have filled out paperwork making them eligible to be put on active duty at a moment’s notice, Olmstead said.

“When you join the National Guard, you know that you could be called in times of emergency or natural disaster to help your state,” Olmstead said. “And that’s what’s happening right now.”

They’re a volunteer force, meaning they have volunteered their time, but Olmstead noted that active-duty Guard members do get paid.

“It’s a wonderful option at this time, when so many people have been laid off from their jobs,” she said.

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The Guard’s aircraft include a variety of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters — everything from massive C-17 Globemaster transport planes to HH-60 Pavehawk helicopters used in wilderness or battlefield rescues, Olmstead said.

The helicopters, in particular, could be useful in rural Alaska, where areas to land a plane can be limited, Olmstead said.