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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Goudy said, "The tents run east to west. Battalion 1 arrived and set up command. There were two triage centers. The reason was we had so many walking wounded. We were inundated with people calling for help. My crew and off-duty police officers did a quick primary search of occupancy to determine if there were any victims unaccounted for. Then we did a thorough secondary search using lights. I went 50 feet into the tent after triage had been set up. My crew found and freed the fatality. In Salt Lake City our protocol states that we do not work on traumatic full arrest.

"My other two crew members and I started to organize. Security for events like the show is often provided by off-duty Salt Lake police officers. I called out for team leaders and they worked with my crew. People who weren't hurt were asked to leave the area. The police secured the perimeter.

"In the beginning, there was lots of rain, lightning strikes and it stayed very dark. Sectors were organized into the Delta Center, Wyndham, Wyndham triage, northern search and rescue in the tent area, and two transportation sectors, one for the ambulances and helicopters, the other for treatment. I later heard that the local media put out a call and off-duty firefighters responded from all over the county. We needed to get people to search out other affected areas."

Next on the twister's hit list was the new Assembly Building being built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Although 800 construction workers were at the site directly south of the Mormon Tabernacle, there were only two reported injuries. (There is much construction in the city preparatory to the 2002 Winter Olympics.) One 200-foot crane was broken by the tornado.

Veering to the north by northeast, the tornado skirted the southern side of the Capitol, toppling dozens of trees but leaving the dome-topped structure unscathed.

"We left the Delta scene and went to the Capitol Hills area (several blocks to the northeast) where we established Hillside command," Goudy said. "Three units were assigned to do a search. There was a lot of damage. When we arrived on the scene, we saw a four-story apartment building that had large shards of glass flapping on its exterior.

"The newer buildings have strict codes for wind shear. They make a big difference in terms of a structure being able to withstand winds. Wood-frame houses, your standard truss roof, will rock and roll, but they'll stand up. Older houses lost their roofs. If trusses were tied to roofs, i.e., hurricane straps, houses can sustain winds better.

"An apartment building had its brick parapet walls blown over. The winds snapped trees that were 21 inches in diameter. Pine trees, oaks and cottonwoods were all blown down. We went door to door, marking each building with an X, meaning it had been searched.

"I walked through a backyard, looking down a driveway. Trees were toppled. I saw what appeared to be a structure of some sort. It was a garage in which two cars had been pancaked. Their wheels were broken. I knelt down. The opening was about a foot and a half high at the eave of the garage. From the top of the cars to the cement floor was about 31/2 feet. Also, while I was in the Capitol Hills area a man told me a two-inch twig had gone through his roof."

Pitching In

By constantly practicing for disasters that are likely to happen, the Salt Lake City Fire Department minimized the damage from a disaster that wasn't supposed to happen.

A proactive, organized citizenry was a valuable resource. By extension it became a departmental asset that did much to alleviate the feeling of helplessness that often adversely affects survivors of natural disasters.


Michael Garlock is a Florida- and New York-based freelance writer specializing in fire service response to major storms.