On The Job - Salt Lake City: Training For Disasters Pays Off When Tornado Rips Downtown Areas

Michael Garlock describes how firefighters responded to an unusual emergency.


SALT LAKE CITY FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Don Berry Personnel: 346 career firefighters Apparatus: Three ladders, 12 pumpers, seven paramedic units, one hazmat unit Population: 180,000 Area: 100 square miles Before Aug. 11, 1999, the last time a tornado passed through Salt Lake City, the...


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Hoffman recalled that "cars were blown all over the road. Every one of them was damaged. Broken glass, a lot of it from the Delta Center, was everywhere. Trees and power line poles were down. There were live wires on the ground. Engine 1 was on the scene 15 to 20 seconds before we were, but couldn't get to the scene as fast because of all the debris. They backed their way in."

He added, "We took the Light Rail tracks." (Light Rail is an aboveground transportation system. The tracks are embedded in the streets.) "The system isn't built yet, but the tracks are in and we used them. People don't drive on them, so they were clear.

"We were the first ones into the tent. People were lying everywhere. Captain Goudy set up an interior sector and we did initial triage, prepped people for transport and cut debris. The tent builders (the company that erects the tents for this and other trade shows) came in and used forklifts to shore up the tent. We did some shoring, using aluminum I beams and wood from the tent. Then we went in."

The immediate tent area was also littered with remains of wooden shipping crates, sample merchandise and display cases. Rocky Mountain Search and Rescue Dog was also active at this time. Police were blocking off streets, diverting traffic, ambulances were on the scene that was strewn with debris, and helicopters were landing and taking off.

One person sought refuge under a semi-trailer that the tornado promptly blew over on him, breaking both his legs. Members of Engine 2 found the man inside the tent in a "frog" position, presumably trying to protect himself. He was pronounced dead at the scene. It was the first tornado-related death in the state's history.

"We were on the scene for around two hours," Hoffman said. "We did damage assessment on the other avenues and got back to the station at 7:30 P.M."

Planning Pays Off

Fire Chief Don Berry said, "The planning we've done for other types of major emergencies also paid off on this one." Berry explained that during one year the department's emergency management training will focus on earthquakes for example; in another year, the focus might be on terrorism or swift water rescue.

Captain Devon Villa, PIO, added, "Our officers are task oriented. The mayor was brought into the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and we went to a unified command. We were the lead agency. Securing the buildings became a primary objective."

The request for mutual aid went out at 1 P.M. Captain William C. Brass of the Salt Lake County Fire Department said, "We sent four engines, two trucks and two paramedics into the downtown area. We went to the scene and also filled empty city stations in the downtown area. In addition, two rescues and four engine companies also responded. They were put under the command of Salt Lake City. (The 328-person county department protects 700,000 people living in an unincorporated county of 550 square miles.)

"Our role was one of support for the city. We're the link between the city and the state. The chronology is the city declares a disaster, followed by the county and the state. The city was declared a disaster within two hours. Taylorsville, Draper, Riverton, West Valley, South Salt Lake, Harriman and seven other cities have contracts with the city to provide paramedics."

Lightning struck LDS (Latter-Day Saints) Hospital, causing a loss of some communications. When power was knocked out in the area, the hospital relied on a backup generator for several hours. In addition, trees and other debris thrown by the twister blocked access to the hospital.

Patients were taken to other facilities, including Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, University Hospital (which converted a hallway into a makeshift trauma center), St. Mark's Hospital in the county, and Pioneer Valley Hospital in West Valley City, which treated a woman who was struck by a flying roof.

"At 1:30, we activated our EO (Emergency Operations) plan and coordinated with other rescue units," Brass said. "We're mandated to open our EO center in the event of an emergency."