Calif. Firefighters Deploy to Fla. to Assist Irma Search and Rescue Efforts
Sept. 14—Dozens of local firefighters and skilled civilians have been deployed to a Florida military base to assist with search and rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
Two teams of 82 people were sent by truck and bus across the country just 30 minutes after another team of 15 had returned from rescue operations in areas near Houston devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The rapid-fire redeployment was a first for teams of the Menlo Park-based, federally funded California Task Force 3, which has responded to 33 large-scale national emergencies since 1991.
"That's never happened before," said Harold Schapelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which sponsors the task force. He added that at least one Class 3 truck driver who returned from Harvey was immediately sent back out for Irma because of a shortage of qualified drivers.
Harvey and Irma have set records for their power and destructiveness and together are blamed for upward of 80 deaths.
"The last time the Team was this busy was in 2005 for Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma," Schapelhouman said in a written statement. "We deployed over 100 people to multiple incidents within a 30-day timeline and we are now close to surpassing that this year."
California Task Force 3 is one of 28 urban search and rescue groups that respond to emergencies in the United States and its territories under the leadership of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In addition to Menlo Park Fire, the task force contains members from 13 local and regional fire agencies, two public agencies, a tech company (Genentech) and a research center (SRI International). An additional 16 unaffiliated civilian professionals took part in the Irma response.
Menlo Fire official Jim Stevens, the task force's leader for the Harvey response, said the teams didn't actually conduct many rescues but scoured miles of flooded residential areas. Members spent days searching by boat through floodwaters and on foot in less flooded areas for potential victims in rural areas of Wharton County, Texas, before reaching Wharton, a suburb of Houston.
"I was impressed with the people of Texas," said Stevens, a Menlo Fire division chief and 35-year veteran of the district. "They were very self-reliant. They were taking matters into their own hands... While there's a level of risk to that, that level of character is impressive."
Stevens' team, with just four vehicles and two trailers, had the ability to quickly get in and out of inundated zones and rescued a married couple who decided to leave when the task force's boats showed up. In another instance, the team encountered a woman in a chair on her porch reading as floodwaters kissed the top of the porch. She had no interest in leaving.
"Most of the people we encountered... decided they would ride it out with family and friends: This is my home and eventually the water will go down and we'll rebuild," Stevens said.
He said the level of devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey didn't hit home until the team was fueling up to return to California. A member of a family that had fled their home, unsure where they were headed or how soon they could return, walked over to thank the team for its efforts.
"He lived in that area and his house was under water," Stevens said. "These people, when we get home, this disaster is going to continue for these people."
Menlo Fire's new drone program, used for the first time in a national emergency for the Harvey response, allowed first responders to quickly ascertain what areas are flooded and which roads were blocked by felled trees or power lines.
The drone program is one of the first in the nation operated by a public service agency with full authority from the Federal Aviation Administration to go anywhere in the nation day or night; it is also supported through partnerships with three drone makers, including Intel and Menlo Park-based Matternet. The fire district has six firefighters trained to fly drones and is looking to expand the team to nine or more.
Tom Calvert, a Menlo Fire battalion chief in charge of the district's drone program, was the only drone pilot sent to the Irma response. But he had five drones in his arsenal so one could always be in flight if others were recharging.
"Flying drones in emergencies is a new thing, it hasn't totally been worked out," said Calvert, whose drone team was deployed for the first time in August at Yosemite National Park to fight the South Fork Fire, which has not yet been contained. "This is a learning experience for me."
Task Force 3 uses a 26,000-square-foot warehouse it rents from Facebook on the tech company's Willow Campus in Menlo Park as a base to meet, practice drills, store emergency gear and perform other related work. Menlo Fire announced Monday the task force has purchased a permanent 28,000-square-foot facility in East Palo Alto.
While the largest number of firefighters responding to Irma—11—are members of Menlo Fire, the task force's members also come from departments in San Francisco, San Jose, Central San Mateo County, Santa Clara County, Santa Clara, Mountain View, Palo Alto, San Mateo, Milpitas, Redwood City, Woodside, South San Francisco, Sunnyvale and Monterey.