MASTIC BEACH, N.Y. - Over 100 New York Air National Guard Airmen assigned to the 106th Rescue Wing prepared for winter weather emergencies by conducting driver training on the beach.
Driving military vehicles in the beach sand at Smith Point County Park near Mastic Beach replicates driving in snow, explained Master Sgt. Richard Cestaro, the 106th's ground transportation superintendent.
When bad weather hits, the 106th provides three Humvees, two medium tactical vehicle trucks and 20 Guardsmen to respond to emergencies on eastern Long Island.
Training on the beach in the summer familiarizes Airmen with the tactical vehicles and driving techniques, Cestaro said.
On July 9, Cestaro and Staff Sgt. Estefany Restrepo, the wing ground transportation dispatcher, trained seven Airmen on driving skills on the beach.
Having enough Airmen to operate vehicles is a "limiting factor" when the wing needs to provide high-axle vehicle operators for domestic response missions, said Master Sgt. Paul Clementi, the wing's emergency management program manager.
Because the tactical vehicles, which are borrowed from the Army National Guard, aren't operated daily, there is a shortage of drivers, Cestaro said.
His solution was to give Airmen who were on duty for COVID-19 response missions a chance to get "stick time" on the beach, Cestaro said.
"I may have a vehicle mechanic and a communications flight kid," Cestaro said. "One's got a beach pass and drives his truck out there all the time and the other's got a Prius and he's never even driven a four-wheel-drive vehicle before. This is blanket training for everyone."
The driver trainees learned how to drive through water. They also practiced night driving and operating the radios.
After-action reviews from previous weather mobilizations indicated those were areas where Airmen wanted more training, Cestaro said.
"We properly train members how to operate these vehicles in storm surge, incorporating some basic land navigation and teaching them how to identify landmarks to determine if the water is too high to get through. … Knock on wood, so far we have gotten 110 people through the class without any issue," Cestaro said.
It's important each Airman is trained for the vehicle for which they're operating, Cestaro said.
"I feel like we are also saving lives by giving this training, if that makes any sense," Cestaro said.
Service members have lost their lives to vehicle accidents and rollovers, many of which are preventable.
"When speaking with Cestaro, it is obvious that he loves what he does and has a drive, no pun intended, to make things better," said Lt. Col. David Carrick, the 106th Rescue Wing deputy mission support officer.
"He and his team have made a significant difference for all and increased the New York National Guard's domestic operations response capability while benchmarking training for other units to follow," he said.