On The Job - Florida

Luis Fernandez recounts the fatal crash of Valujet Flight 592 and the intense efforts by various agencies to locate survivors.


METRO-DADE FIRE RESCUE DEPARTMENT Chief Dave Paulison Personnel: 1,340 career firefighters Apparatus: 35 pumpers, 23 TeleSqurts, seven aerials, two tankers, 54 EMS units, 11 battalion units, seven support units (air truck, hazmat, scene support, canteen van, water rescue, heavy cargo, tactical...


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With the cooperation of the NTSB, and at the request of Valujet and family members, MDFR set out on Thursday, May 16, to honor the families' wishes and bring them to the crash site. This would turn out to be no easy task. First, a time would need to be decided on that would not interfere with the recovery operation, but would get them off the levee before dark. We found late afternoon to be best. Second, five buses would need to be provided for the 2 1/2-hour drive to the crash site. Each bus was staffed with two MDFR paramedics, not only to provide medical assistance but also to answer any questions the family members might have. Grief counselors and clergy members were also on each bus to provide emotional support.

On the way to the crash site the buses passed through both command posts, as sunburned rescue and recovery workers lined the roadway to pay their respects to the families. The buses came to a stop just past the forward base. This was as close as the families could safely go. As they exited the buses, utter silence fell over the entire area. Tears flowed, not only from the victims' families but also from the rescuers, for this was the closest that rescuer and victim would ever come. A multi-denominational service was held at the levee, and those attending were allowed to put flowers and other mementos on a Florida Game and Freshwater Fish airboat, which would then place them directly over the crater.

Once the ceremony was over, and dusk was rapidly approaching, family members were asked to board the buses back to the hotel but no one moved. The emotional impact on the victims' families was just too strong. People began to fill little cups with soil, they took palm fronds and snapped photos of the area, all in an effort to preserve the memory of loved ones lost.

Media Relations

The presence of an assigned public information officer (PIO) on scene is crucial in order to control what can quickly become a chaotic and adversarial environment between media and rescue workers. MDFR's policy is to dispatch a PIO on any significant event, and because of this the PIO was one of the first units on the scene.

The PIO's initial objective was to immediately gather information from the on-scene staff and set up a regular briefing schedule. A briefing area was established and the first press briefing was conducted within an hour after the crash. This served two purposes: it kept the media away from rescuers and staff who were engaged in the initial operations; and the PIO provided accurate information directly from the site during a time when information is generally not readily available.

Throughout the days that followed, the PIO played a vital role in keeping the community, the country and even the victims' families abreast of rescue activities. MDFR video and still photographers, members of the Public Information Bureau, shot most of the video and still photos of the crash site seen around the world. This enabled MDFR to provide the media with daily footage without interfering in the actual rescue operation. It also assured that the video being distributed did not compromise the privacy of the victims and their families.

Lessons Learned

  • The incident management system works. Applying its principles and assuring that everyone followed procedures permitted a smooth day-to-day operation.
  • Being able to adapt to a hostile environment is essential, as is the ability to improvise solutions. The fire service cannot always dictate that all emergency operations will take place within city limits and last only a few hours.
  • The fire service can manage large-scale, long-term, non-emergency operations in a proactive manner. The overall incident commander for the entire 30-day operation was MDFR Assistant Chief of Operations Carlos J. Castillo. His knowledge as a veteran fireground officer, and his extensive disaster mitigation experience as a member of the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) Incident Support Team, provided instant expertise in structuring an operation as massive as this one.
  • The unified command structure proved to be an integral part of the entire operation's effectiveness. The opportunity to work in unison with a variety of agencies performing many different, crucial tasks was unique and successful.

Luis Fernandez is a lieutenant and nine-year veteran of the Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Department in Florida, currently serving as a public information officer. He is vice chair of the Florida Fire Chiefs Public Information Officer Association.