On the ground in Puerto Rico with Maryland Task Force 1

FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces have been activated to assist citizens of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona made landfall on Sunday as a Category 1 storm. The storm dumped nearly 30 inches of rain in 72 hours in parts of the country after making landfall on Puerto Rico’s far southwest coast near Punta Tocon.

Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department Public Information Officer Pete Piringer confirmed that the 35-member Maryland Task Force 1 boarded a plane at the Baltimore Washington International Airport and was scheduled to arrive in the hurricane-damaged area on Tuesday.

Reuters reported that Hurricane Fiona forced 12,500 people from their homes and left 709,000 without power.

Fiona stripped roads, caused massive flooding and mudslides, ripped roofs off homes and left millions without clean water.

Task force team familiar with island response

Hurricane Fiona’s landfall coincides with the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 storm that knocked out the island’s power grid and claimed nearly 3,000 lives. The infrastructure remains weak, and many houses still have makeshift tarp roofs, compounding Fiona’s impact.

I spoke with Piringer, who told me, “Many of our team know the island from being deployed there five years ago for Hurricane Maria. We’ll get the team there, plan, meet the operational staff and get to work.

Working group response

FEMA task forces are equipped and ready to deploy within six hours in various response models. When federal support is planned before an event such as a hurricane, resources are often pre-positioned with other federal responders to expedite post-disaster support.

Each Type 1 National Urban Search and Rescue System is made up of 70 members specializing in search, rescue, medicine, hazardous materials, logistics and planning, including technical specialists such as medics, structural engineers and canine research teams. The task forces can divide into two US&R Type 3 National Task Forces, each consisting of 35 members to conduct search and rescue operations around the clock in 12-hour shifts.

Maryland sent a 35-member Type 3 team to Puerto Rico. The team of specialized rescue technicians, medical professionals, doctors, dogs and dog handlers are drawn from the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services, the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services Howard and the Prince Georges County Fire Department.

“The Montgomery County team consists of a few hundred firefighters, both professional and volunteer, and people from surrounding jurisdictions,” Piringer said. “FEMA refers to the type of team that deployed today as the USAR Light Team.”

Piringer explained that because the team was only half the size of the Type 1 team, it is considered a regional team and has less equipment, but focuses on a specific type of rescue. He added that they were anticipating water rescues, due to the torrential rains.

“The cadre of personnel from many disciplines – search and rescue, dogs, live dogs, cadaver dogs, doctors, planning, logistics, firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and technical rescuers – are expected to be on the island for 10-14 days” , said Piringer.

He added that these timelines can be changed as needed, including sending additional staff if deemed necessary.

Piringer added that Task Force 1 from Maryland will be assisted by a team from Nebraska.

The National Urban Search and Rescue System was formally established under the authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1989.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is responsible for leading the nation’s efforts to prepare for, protect, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the impacts of natural disasters and man-made incidents or terrorist events.

The origin of the team dates back to the early 1980s, after the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department of Virginia and the Miami-Dade County Fire Department in Florida established search teams and rescue to deal with rescue operations in collapsed buildings. The U.S. Department of State and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance requested these teams to help with the earthquakes in Mexico City in 1985, Luzon in 1990, and Leninakan in 1989. Some other notable responses from the task force include Hurricane Iniki, Kauai, Hawaii in September 1992; Northridge earthquakes, Los Angeles County, California in January 1994; the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995; Hurricane Opal, Fort Walton Beach, Florida in October 1995; Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina in September 1999 and the tragic events of September 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, New York and the Pentagon, Washington DC

Workgroup locations

There are 28 task forces in the United States, each sponsored by a local agency. In the event of a disaster in the United States, the three closest task forces will be activated and dispatched to the disaster site. If the situation is important enough, additional teams will be activated.

Their locations are:

  • Phoenix, Arizonathe phoenix fire department
  • Los Angeles, Californiathe city of los angeles fire department
  • Los Angeles County, Californiathe Los Angeles County Fire Department
  • Menlo Park, CaliforniaMenlo Park Fire District
  • Oakland, CaliforniaOakland Fire Department
  • Orange County, CaliforniaOrange County Fire Authority
  • Riverside CaliforniaRiverside Fire Department
  • Sacramento, Californiathe Sacramento Fire Department
  • Lakewood, ColoradoWest Metro Fire Rescue
  • Miami-Dade County, FloridaMiami Date Fire Rescue
  • Miami, Floridathe miami fire department
  • Marion County, IndianaIndianapolis Fire Department
  • Montgomery County, Marylandthe Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department
  • Beverly County, MissouriBoone County Fire Protection District
  • Lincoln, NebraskaLincoln Fire and Rescue Department
  • Clark County, NevadaClark County Fire Department
  • Lakehurst, New JerseyNew Jersey State Police
  • New York City, the New York City Fire Department and the New York City Police Department
  • Miami Valleyin Ohio
  • Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • Memphis, TNMemphis Fire Department
  • College Station, TexasTexas A&M Engineering Extension Service
  • Salt Lake City, UTthe unified fire authority
  • Fairfax County, Virginiathe Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department
  • Virginia Beach, VirginiaVirginia Beach Fire Department
  • Puget Sound, Washington areaPierce County Emergency Management Department

Task Force Responsibilities

Each member of the working group is a specialist in one of the following four areas:

  • Look for – Locating disaster victims using specialized electronic equipment and tools to search for missing or trapped victims, especially rescue personnel who may be trapped inside a collapsed structure.
  • Rescue – Getting a victim out of where they are trapped usually involves clearing debris around the victim. This is accomplished using a wide range of construction equipment, such as concrete saws, jackhammers and drills; and rescue-type technical equipment, such as ropes, lifting airbags, shore systems and hydraulic rescue tools.
  • Technical – Structural specialists provide technical support to rescuers using materials to see where and how engineering was done. They use equipment such as snake cameras, fiberscopes, sensitive listening devices, measuring devices, strain gauges, levels, A/V equipment and dog support equipment, such as kennels, harnesses and sleeping pads.
  • Medical – Provide medical treatment to team, dogs and casualties before, during and after rescue using medical monitoring equipment, splinting equipment and medication. The medical cache includes medications, IV fluids, blankets, suture kits, airways, ET tubes, defibrillators, burn treatment supplies, bone saws, and scalpels.

In addition, the team is made up of canine rescuers. Trusty four-legged companions are an essential part of US&R teams. The animals’ keen sense of smell allows them to locate victims that might otherwise go undiscovered. The vast majority of working group dog handlers are volunteers.

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