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.
OPERATIONS IN HAITI
As we peered through the window of the armored vehicles assigned to us (all vehicles assigned in the embassy are armored), the landscape was surreal. At any place and at any time during our recon mission the vehicle could have stopped, and a search and rescue mission could have begun right then and there. The magnitude of the devastation we were seeing was unimaginable. Bodies were strewn on the curbs by the dozens in some places. Collapsed structures were evident as far as the eye could see. Thousands of Haitians were walking the streets in what seemed like a daze. Our team leaders and Creole-speaking members tried to prioritize what information we were being given and what the locals were telling us as well. Direction was given from the United Nations that we were assigned any structure that had a high probability of occupancy at the time of the quake. Since schools were in session late in the afternoon, they were a priority. Apartment buildings and hospitals were also first on the list. With these assignments and with the knowledge from our recon teams, we began our first rescue within six hours of arriving in-country.
A six-story university had collapsed pancake style (floor upon floor). We arrived at this location based on locals telling us that they were hearing children still alive inside and trapped beneath the unreinforced concrete. A father of one of the children and some of the neighbors had begun to tunnel underneath one of the floors using some of the most rudimentary tools available, but it was working. When task force members arrived at the school, they went right to work. FL-TF1's structural specialist conducted an assessment of the building and provided the analysis to the rescue team manager. The objective was to reach the first-trapped student as soon as possible, and then to begin searching the rest of the multi-story school. Once survivors were confirmed, additional resources were requested. Since our heavy tools had still not arrived, we began our extrication with the most common tools in the fire and rescue service: the sledge hammer, the pry bar, the flat and pick-headed axe, and the Halligan.
As night began to fall, it was clear this was going to be a lengthy extrication. This was the first night, we were five hours into our first operation, and there were thousands still trapped. The same thought ran across all of our minds. How were we going to get to everybody who still needed our help? As the night wore on and rescuers continued the extrication, large dump trucks preceded by front-end loaders were rolling up and down the street picking up the deceased who were lying in the roadway. Team Manager Captain Jeff Strickland kept everybody on task and focused; rotating crews and assigning responsibilities constantly kept rescuers' thoughts from roaming. Our Creole team members were now talking to the trapped young man and were keeping his family abreast of our every move. He was alert, in pain, but was lucky to be alive. He was in a void space and only had his left leg trapped below the knee. His lower left leg proved to be severely trapped, and for a while our team physicians were prepared to conduct a field amputation. But incredible work with hand tools freed the trapped victim in the early-morning hours of the next day.
There would be many more rescues in the following days — so many that this mission would be recognized as the most successful in the entire history of the United States urban search and rescue response program.
At 6:03 one morning we were awakened to a rocking sensation. In a matter of 10 seconds or less, the ground swayed, and hundreds of car alarms began to sound on the embassy grounds. Everyone jumped as soon as the word "quake" was yelled, and we instinctively went into our evacuation plan. But seconds later it was over; a 6.0 aftershock had shaken us and the capital city that morning. None of us was hurt, but for many of the island inhabitants and us, too, this strong aftershock added to the psychological strain of such an enormous catastrophe.
How do you prepare for events of this magnitude?
As first responders and fire rescue professionals, we train and prepare for many scenarios. Sometimes we think we have seen it all. Then there comes a time in our careers that we ask ourselves if we are prepared mentally and physically to begin this mission, this task, or this assignment. Most of us agree that training is absolutely necessary, but so is mentoring and coaching. Throughout our mission there were senior, experienced team members talking and listening to the younger members of the team. There were numerous conversations about hydration, sleep deprivation, tactics, strategies, and even age-old combat conversations on how to best take care of your feet when you are wearing your boots for 20 hours a day.
Urban search and rescue training incorporates many disciplines. However, the standardization of tools, equipment, storage boxes, and medical components for each task force is done deliberately to allow for cross-utilization and familiarization. This example allowed us on the first day to function with Los Angeles County's tools when ours still had not yet arrived in-country. In addition, position descriptions and functions are similar. Personnel are also cross-utilized when needed and can provide like skill sets to other task forces when needed.
A mobile team like the task force needs to have a continuous, common methodology for transport. "The ability to have your heavy tools and equipment with you on the same air asset proved to be a valuable lesson," said Task Force co-leader Chief Dave Downey. "The ability to use light tools helped, but, boy, did I lose a lot of sleep until our tools arrived in-country." Like any heavy rescue squad the need to have all of your equipment with you, or to at least have a support vehicle with you, greatly enhances the team's ability to function at maximum capacity. Although the heavy breaching and breaking tools are definitely needed, more importantly personnel need to have the utmost ease of use with the smaller hand tools, according to Chief Downey.
Back home when we have responses to working fires or extrications, they are often finite operations. We basically get in, get the job done, do the report and get back in-service. In a foreign or even a domestic deployment, firefighters conducting urban search and rescue operations can work up to 14 days before the assignment has ended. In those instances, rehab and recovery must be in the forefront of not only the assigned safety officers, but of everyone on-site. We found that there must be:
- A hot meal as often as possible (once a day)
- A way to communicate with family (once a week or so being the norm)
- A way to isolate oneself for rest from the daily activities of a base camp (ear plugs or eye shades)
- A way to control the spread of contaminants typical in these types of environments (showering, hand washing, and deconning of personal clothing)
The National Urban Search and Rescue Response System was established almost 20 years ago to provide trained emergency responders to help local assets mitigate primarily structural collapses in urban environments. The response system is made up of personnel who specialize in various disciplines including search, rescue, medical, technical, hazmat, planning and canine. These men and women are predominately first responders in many of our local communities. The system is currently made up of 28 teams nationwide under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency (DHS/FEMA). Each participating agency commits to providing a centralized training and deployment center point for their respective task forces. For international deployments, the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID), under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, becomes the coordinator for U.S. aid for both rescue and recovery assistance and utilizes two primary urban search and rescue task forces as its first-in response teams. MDFR has played a significant role assisting both domestic and international response systems dating as far back as 1985.
Louie Fernandez is a 23-year-veteran of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department and is currently assigned as captain to the training and safety division. Captain Fernandez serves as a member of Florida Task Force 1 and on FEMA's Urban Search and Rescue's Incident Support Team. He is the author of The Crisis Communications Handbook (Jane's 2003), and holds a bachelor's degree in public administration and an associate degree in fire science.