When Joplin (Mo.) first responders needed assistance following a devastating tornado, Fire Chief Mitch Randles called on Missouri Task Force 1, theUrban Search and Rescue team based in Boone County. The team is qualified and equipped to search for and rescue victims entombed in collapsed reinforced concrete and steel structures. The search team used canine units and GPS technology to de-layer structures and help find Joplin residents.
At its most effective level, Task Force 1 is a highly sophisticated response team, and chiefs have to be flexible for those department members who work on it, said Chief Robert Rennick of the Jefferson City Fire Department. His department has three members who serve on the US&R team, and that requires a significant investment in time, management, training and equipment.
“Whenever there is a deployment … a matter of giving them their time, the city has supported their deployment,” Rennick said.
Joplin also requested statewide fire mutual-aid, as well as other mutual-aid organizations, such as law enforcement and public works. Rennick — who was Jefferson City’s lead point of contact in Joplin — coordinated fire mutual-aid assets, which included two teams of incident-support personnel sent to the emergency operations center.
Jefferson City Capt. Matt Schofield is part of Task Force 1. The task force relies heavily on surrounding departments and supporting agencies that provide the personnel and equipment to respond when needed, Schofield said.
“Firefighters on the US&R team rely heavily on … supporting agencies like the Jeff[erson] City Fire Department,” he said, noting that the Task Force 1 for the Joplin incident consisted of 85 statewide personnel who left their day jobs to be deployed federally. His team was mobilized late evening on May 22 and arrived at 2 the next morning. They were welcomed by destruction and the threat of another round of severe thunderstorms — including threats of tornados.
“We started seeing infrastructure being damaged,” Schofield said about nearing Joplin. “We saw a lot of vehicles on the highway that were overturned, so we knew we were getting into the area affected.”
When the team arrived, it was still dark and stormy. They checked in at the Joplin EOC and with mobile units brought in from other statewide mutual-aid departments. Their first task was to make contact with residents, search dilapidated buildings, record their findings and provide feedback up the chain of command to the EOC.
Schofield’s US&R team brought 14 vehicles to Joplin of different sizes, including tractor trailers to transport search-and-rescue equipment. They also brought top-notch training and enough resources to be self-sufficient.
“Our training is geared to search and rescue beyond the capability of local fire departments,” Schofield said. “Our goal is not to be a drain on the local resources because we already know they are overwhelmed by the incident. So we are self-sufficient and bring everything we need to survive and to support our search-and-research operations.”
Equipment used included highly trained canine assets, specifically live-human, air-scent dogs certified through a federal vetting system. They also used thermal infrared cameras and seismic listening devices for use on heavy concrete and steel rubble piles to find life, Schofield said.
“By the time a big team like US&R or mutual aid is activated statewide, the local resources have done a lot of that initial work, as far as the volume of patients with immediate assistance,” he said. “So we come into to do what we call a secondary search.”
A secondary search means the team methodically delayers the structure and ensures it is completely searched, Schofield said. They also gather information by using mobile tracking logs that automatically transmit location data back to the emergency command center using consumer GPS and mapping software.
“The foundation of that data is the ability to say objectively that this crew has been at this place at this time,” he said. “Once that data is collected on a map, we send it to the EOC. They then have the data.”
Schofield said the data later is used for training purposes, including an honest assessment of the response, its outcome and any lessons learned.
“If we can have objective GPS data that shows us what’s been done then we know where to send those resources in the future,” he said.
While the response effort went smoothly, Schofield believes the multijurisdictional response could have worked better if all departments used the same terminology. Codes and slang added some confusion and further showed the need for language standardization that should be adopted nationwide.
“We can do that better in that area,” he added.
Ego also needs to be addressed, according to Rennick. Some department members still feel a sense of territorialism and want control of an incident. It’s important that mutual-aid teams are seen and used as the needed cache of equipment and human resources to address large-scale events, and those protocols like NIMS are there to guide them through the process.
“Mutual-aid and federal partners are there to help, not take over operations,” he said.
Rennick added that the disaster was another eye-opener to officials. In fact, first responders in the state have been tested by Mother Nature, through recent ice, snow and wind storms, as well as flooding.
“We’ve found several short comings,” he said about the response. “But our aim is to be able to provide the resources needed.”