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ATC systems admin serves country in Air National Guard

Captain Rutkowski, second from right, with his team in Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Jeff Rutkowski.

Jeff Rutkowski spends his days at American Transmission Co. helping to protect the electric transmission grid, and in his time away from ATC, he helps to protect our country as a Captain in the Wisconsin Air National Guard.

Rutkowski is a systems operations administrator with ATC, which means he monitors the servers and applications running the electric transmission grid throughout ATC’s service area. Many evenings and weekends, he trains and attends conferences as the Officer in Charge of the 115th Fighter Wing’s Communications Flight with the Air National Guard.

Rutkowski’s secondary role is leading the Joint Incident Site Communications Capability (JISCC) and preparing his team to respond in emergencies. His JISCC team operates a portable communications center during catastrophic events, and the team was integral to recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria caused massive damage throughout Puerto Rico in September.

The hurricane destroyed a variety of communications equipment as well as a generator used by the Federal Aviation Administration to power the control center that directs flights throughout the island. Without communication tools, the only way to direct the flow of air traffic was by visually assessing the spacing between planes to ensure safe takeoff and landing. With no other way to organize incoming and outgoing flights, only about six planes could land each hour at the San Juan International Airport, which typically can handle around 45 flights per hour.

“The first responder effort was incredible. But with Puerto Rico being an island, the only way you can get there is by plane or by boat. It was so important to get communications up and running at the airport so they could fly those first responders in,” said Rutkowski.

Rutkowski’s unit arrived at the airport just three days after the hurricane hit. The team immediately began setting up a temporary communications network. His team provided the FAA with internet, radio and phones to help restore capabilities and resume operations through contact with planes in the air and the surrounding area’s airports. Because of the team’s efforts, the number of flights per hour climbed from six to 30. After communication was established at the airport, more responders and aid could land.

“The hurricane was really devastating to the island and the island’s infrastructure. It just looked like it had smashed these structures,” he said. “It’s clear the infrastructure will take years to recover.”

Without power throughout the island, and with only small quantities of gas to run generators, everyday life for Puerto Rico residents ground to a halt. People needed food, water and other basic necessities. Rutkowski and other members of the national guard did everything they could to help.

“We were cleaning and helping people at their homes. We took on a lot of extra tasks because we knew how important it was. We were one of the first teams there, and we tried to be as impactful as we could,” he said. “It was pretty humbling and made me think about how important food, water and power is. It really highlights how important what I do here at ATC is – helping to reliably deliver power every day.”

Rutkowski’s team provided the primary source of communication for the airport for four weeks and continued as the secondary source of communication for two more weeks. In total, Rutkowski and his team were in Puerto Rico for 41 days.

Rutkowski’s Puerto Rico deployment was just one of many he has been part of during his 12 years in the military. He has also been deployed to Iraq and Estonia, among other locations.

Bill Rheingans (left), Area 2 Chair of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, presented the Patriot Award to Rutkowski’s supervisor, Lori Pernsteiner (center), ATC team leader, energy management system, for her support during Rutkowski’s deployments.

When he’s not deployed, Rutkowski spends time training and researching how to protect military and Air Force communication networks.

“It takes a lot of work. When you hear about the National Guard, people think of weekend warriors, but it’s so much more than that. It’s almost a second full‑time job. But what we do in the National Guard is all volunteer – everyone there wants to be there and wants to put in the effort,” he said.

Rutkowski says he’s able to do both because of a strong support system, including his family at home and his team at ATC.

“I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have a company like ATC to support me. They are very supportive of my life in the military,” Rutkowski said. “That in and of itself relieves a lot of stress and relieves a lot of the burden.”

Rutkowski recently nominated his supervisor, Lori Pernsteiner, team leader, energy management system, for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Patriot Award. Rutkowski coordinated with Bill Rheingans, Area 2 Chair of the Wisconsin chapter of  the ESGR, to surprise Pernsteiner with the award in April. Rutkowski says he nominated Pernsteiner to recognize her for the support she shows for both his military duties and his career at ATC.

Roughly 10 percent of ATC employees are either in the military or have a military background. ATC is proud to support both active military and veterans, and ATC is grateful for their service to our country.