The Fog of Disaster: Into Haiti With Two Tampa Fire USAR Members

As the four-engine C-130s began spooling up their massive 4,591-hp power plants, spinning six-bladed props that sliced through the unusually chilly morning air in South Florida, the 80-member Florida Task Force 2 had already secured their semi-trailers...


As the four-engine C-130s began spooling up their massive 4,591-hp power plants, spinning six-bladed props that sliced through the unusually chilly morning air in South Florida, the 80-member Florida Task Force 2 had already secured their semi-trailers full of specialized rescue equipment aboard...


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So when we heard there might have been 150 people inside the market, we were dubious. When we arrived, a team from Turkey, maybe six or eight people had came in light and fast with only small hand tools. The Turkish team had heard voices deep inside this supermarket and through their humanitarian efforts had chiseled away in the center of the store into the basement, then crawled in. As we worked with them, we were able to confirm voices. I was lucky enough to hear the voice of a small child. I told the gentleman standing beside me that that was the voice of an angel. I actually felt chills in my back. We were able to call in some of the other rescue teams and specialized equipment we had flown over. It took 26 hours to get the first person out. It was a highly technical rescue — the acoustical equipment, battery-operated, water-cooled saws … but most of the effort came from their hearts. They were not going to quit. Florida Task Force 2 was not leaving until those people came out. All those tools were nice, but the bottom line was the team. We watched team members come out of there just exhausted; they weren't giving up. The Turkish team stayed and worked side by side with our team. This was a heavy, technical rescue that could have only been done by a team from the U.S. with the million dollars of tools and the knowledge to effect a rescue of this magnitude. It was rewarding to rescue five lives and be part of the team. I am convinced this type of rescue could only be done by a USAR team. The tools were nice, but the effort was from the heart.

Brian: You have to compliment our program manager and our task force leaders. Task Force 2 leaders made the decision that if we found you, we were not going to leave you — we were going to get you.

IN WHAT SEQUENCE ARE THE RESCUE DOGS DEPLOYED?

Brian: The dogs are typically the first on scene. If they alert to a specific situation, then we send in a second dog to confirm. If it alerts with an active bark, then we try to hail the trapped victim. If we get a response, then we know a rescue can proceed. The rescue specialists come in to do the digging, as well as the structural people, who will get involved to look at the situation to see how best to approach the excavation. The dogs attempt to be closest to the scent. Often this is a foot under or it could be buried 20 feet. And we can have multiple workers on the rubble pile when we launch a dog. The canine will take inventory and determine who is working and determine the victim's scent. It's a game of hide-and-seek for the dog.

Roger: We do a lot of training in which we practice among a variety of people and situations to sharpen the dog's ability to locate victims.

HOW WAS THE TASK FORCE TACTICALLY ORGANIZED?

Brian: Technical rescue people operated the listening devices; the cribbing was done by rescue specialist and structural people. We all have specialties, but we are cross-trained in other's area of expertise. We are all part of Florida Task Force 2, which is sponsored by the City of Miami. There are some 20 departments that all support Task Force 2 and make up the team. We are the farthest north department from Miami. But Miami is where the equipment cache is kept.

WHAT DID YOU BRING AWAY FROM HAITI?

Brian: The vast majority of the Haitian people are wonderful. And we take a lot of things for granted here. It was really humbling for me. Sometimes our priorities are not where they should be.

Roger: I left my heart in Haiti. It was a difficult deployment. You can't go to a country like Haiti and see people whose eyes are filled with pain and suffering without it affecting you. We saw the despair in the eyes of the children. I had to wonder, how they will survive after the TV cameras shut down and humanitarian efforts trickle in? That's going to be tough for the people.

I know I wasn't alone in these feelings. We went by the UN hospital in the bus, and our team doctor got out and went into the hospital. He came back with a troubled look on his face. I asked, "Are you all right?" He said, "No." He said, "It's horrible in there. There are 500 patients inside and only one doctor." It's just not right to see children suffer.

WOULD YOU DO IT AGAIN?

Brian: We'd go tomorrow. It's what we do.

Roger: Our bags are packed.

Roger and Brian were deployed for 12 days for the Haiti disaster. They arrived back in Tampa to a hero's welcome, one that they agree was overwhelming. As President Obama, who was holding a Town Hall meeting at the University of Tampa, introduced the two lieutenants to the crowd and a national television audience, both felt a great humility. Theirs was a team effort supported by dozens of other rescue professionals. Yet their energy, devotion and determination to do the best job set a high mark in their professional lives.

PAUL SNODGRASS, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a firefighter with the Sarasota County, FL, Fire Department and a former fire chief. He is on the faculty at the University of Florida and an adjunct fire science instructor at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, FL, and Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, CA. Snodgrass holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Augsburg College and a master's degree in education from the University of Phoenix. He has been writing about, designing and teaching online courses since 2005. He can be reached at e.educational@gmail.com.