It was a Tuesday afternoon on January 12, 2010, and while most of the school kids in the U.S. were getting ready to end their day, students in Haiti were in the middle of their school session. In just a few seconds, an already impoverished nation would suffer the calamities of a catastrophic...
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It was a Tuesday afternoon on January 12, 2010, and while most of the school kids in the U.S. were getting ready to end their day, students in Haiti were in the middle of their school session. In just a few seconds, an already impoverished nation would suffer the calamities of a catastrophic earthquake that would test rescuers, caregivers and an entire population.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) is the sponsoring agency for Florida Task Force 1 (FL-TF1). Most of the 72 members who responded on our mission to Haiti were from MDFR. Approximately 62,000 pounds of equipment were palletized for this deployment. Once given our activation orders from the federal government, a timely call-out and assembly of personnel took place. Like clockwork, our members came from all parts of the county with their documents and gear ready to depart for the island nation. Miami-Dade's cache of equipment is maintained in a warehouse facility in southern Miami-Dade County, adjacent to the Homestead Air Reserve Base. While historically MDFR has embarked on military flights, our team was reassigned to Miami International Airport to deploy via chartered aircraft. This last-minute change required us to totally reconfigure our equipment cache and separate our team from its rescue tools and equipment. Our cache also had to be split between two different aircraft in order to adhere to aviation weight restrictions.
SITUATION ON ARRIVAL
Once arriving in Haiti, conditions at the capital's airport were right out of a fictional novel. Organized chaos was a luxury. Our first images on the tarmac were of a vacant control tower and U.S. Air Force personnel handling flight operations on four-wheel ATVs from midfield. The airport in Port-au-Prince consisted of a single runway with only one taxiway, and therefore could only bring in minimal aircraft per hour. Incoming flights to Haiti were left in a holding pattern for long periods, and many of the arriving flights were diverted to the Dominican Republic and the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Since we had to modify our cache, 90% of our equipment had to arrive on two separate flights, with most of our heavy breaking and breaching tools arriving some 36 hours after us. After a few hours on the airport grounds, a logistics officer from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) secured vehicles for our team to take us to the U.S. Embassy located in the center of Port-au-Prince.
The first 24 hours in-country are the most important, and here were the priorities:
- Establish a command post and base of operations.
- Establish security and accountability procedures.
- Establish communications.
- Initiate reconnaissance and rescue operations through in-place mission assignment and tracking.
Logistical considerations were immediate. First, where were we going to establish our base? Our two team leaders, Chiefs Dave Downey and Alan Perry, knew from many years of disaster experience that in order for us to be successful in our mission as soon as possible, they must be assertive in their priorities and they must delegate and assign tasks. As the two team leaders took on the task of finding a piece of real estate to set up camp, every team member went to work as well.
As most firefighters do, we like to hit the ground running as the bell goes off. It was no different here. While most of the team worked on accomplishing the above priorities, a group of rescue squad managers was already preparing to begin a reconnaissance (recon) mission in the capital. But first we needed accurate and reliable local information. Being able to understand a culture and speak the language is a valuable asset for a foreign response team. MDFR Chief Karls Paul-Noel, Chief Yves Mardice and Dr. Rudolph Moise, members of FL-TF 1 and fluent in French Creole, were receiving and sharing information from locals in the area. All three had contacts in Haiti, knew the language and were soon putting our team in motion with local guides and drivers. The U.S. Embassy was allowing us to use its motor pool, but there were limited resources. Our team would also have to compete for transportation and drivers with all the other supportive services the U.S. government was providing. Within a few hours after arriving at the embassy and with much negotiating, four vehicles were assigned to us and we were able to embark on our first recon mission.