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When There's Trouble, The Task Force Deploys

By Bridgett Feehan
May 12, 2010

A disaster can occur at any time, without warning or without notice. The members of the Virginia Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team (VA-TF1) are one of the first to respond to these disasters.

VA-TF1 is comprised of 200 trained men and women from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. VA-TF1 also includes canine search specialists, physicians, structural specialists and rigging specialists. They are the world’s first “responder community” when an emergency occurs. The team responds to both domestic (Virginia Task Force 1) and international (USAR Team 1) disasters.

VA-TF1 was established in 1986 after the devastating 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. The team was formed to be a “self-sustainable response resource” in order to better react to disastrous events such as Mexico City. If activated, a team of 70 Task Force members will be deployed. In some instances, such as the earthquake in Haiti, more members can be deployed if needed.

Virginia Task Force 1 has important partnerships that help make its rescue missions possible. The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency work together for domestic missions, while the United States Agency for International Development and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance handle international missions.

The team responds to both natural and man-made disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes, bombings and terrorist attacks.

The members of VA-TF1 must be prepared for the worst at all times and be ready to leave, sometimes without having a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones. It is a challenging and high stress career, but the men and women of VA-TF1 say they are committed to doing whatever it takes to get the job done.

Matthew T. Groff is one of these team members. Groff is employed by the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. He is currently stationed at Fire Station 21 in Fairfax, Va., and has just started his 17th year as a firefighter. He has been a member of the Virginia Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team for eight years now. He has been on six rescue missions, three of which have been working missions.

This number includes the most recent mission to Haiti, which he believes was by far the toughest but most rewarding mission he has been on thus far. Referring to his time spent in Haiti, Groff said, “I was proud to play but a small part in such a monumental rescue and relief effort that will never be forgotten and continue to pray and hope for the successful recovery of the people of Haiti.”

Groff is trained as both a rescue specialist and a technical search specialist, which he elaborates on during his interview. For the mission to Haiti however, Groff served as a rescue squad officer guiding his squad through its mission.

Being a firefighter, he explained, includes a variety of responsibilities not just to your co-workers, but to your community as well. When you become a member of VA-TF1, your community expands to include citizens throughout the country and the world. This can be a huge time commitment on top of an already demanding career. Groff was asked what made him want to join VA-TF1. “It was a natural progression to join the team,” he said.

What follows is an edited selection of questions and answers with Groff. This interview focuses on his most recent rescue mission to Haiti. It is an inside look to the procedures behind the mission and the hard work and efforts of the Task Force.

Q: What made you want to join the Task Force in addition to already being a firefighter?

Groff: There were three primary reasons. First, I was already involved with our Fairfax County Technical Rescue Operations Team (TROT.) As a member of this team you train and respond to technical rescue situations on a daily basis in addition to your regular firefighting duties. Therefore, it was a natural progression to join the USAR team in order to gain additional skills and utilize these skills in unique rescue situations. Second, it is just another way to help your fellow human being in times when they most need it. Lastly, if you are going to do these things you always strive to do it with a great team with great people. I felt then and now that Fairfax County VA-TF1 fit that mold.

Q: What is your specific job or position for rescue missions and what responsibilities does it include?

Groff: Many of the personnel on our team have multiple jobs or positions they can do. For me, the technical positions I have trained and served in are as a rescue specialist and a technical search specialist. A rescue specialist is one of the primary working positions on the team. When the team is deployed the rescue specialists make up the largest portion of the team by sheer numbers. Their position has the primary responsibility of utilizing special rescue tools and equipment to extricate and remove a trapped patient once they are found.

A technical search specialist has a primary duty of conducting search reconnaissance missions to find trapped people and/or better pinpoint a victim's location once they are discovered in the rubble. They also utilize special equipment such as search cameras and listening devices in conjunction with canines to help them locate victims.

On the Haiti earthquake mission however, I served as a rescue squad officer. Their primary responsibility is to guide a rescue squad in search and rescue operations. A rescue squad consists of eight or nine personnel of which most are rescue specialists. There is also one technical search specialist, one paramedic, and at least one hazardous materials specialist on a rescue squad as well.

Q: I know that there is a system that the team uses for searching which involves tapping and later marking off the checked area for rescues. Can you explain this system and how it works?

Groff: There can be several variations, however I will describe the basics of what a search reconnaissance team would do when they find a building or area to search. After gathering what intelligence they can from locals about where people may be in the building, the typical first step is to allow the canines to work through the collapsed building to determine if they pick up a scent. Based on the canine's findings, personnel may then do a line search of the area. This is where personnel walk and/or crawl over a collapsed area while hailing out in unison and listening for any type of voice or noise response. They will also crawl into void spaces and do the same.

After a line search, personnel may utilize a special listening device where probes are placed on various rubble surfaces and personnel will then "hail" and "tap.” They then listen through headphones for any type of response. The probes can pick up sound vibrations from deep within a building that the human ear cannot hear without assistance. The probes would then be moved systematically to different parts of the structure and the process repeated.

Also, in tight void spaces personnel may utilize search cameras that can be maneuvered to see into these areas. If at any time a live victim is found the search reconnaissance team will call for assistance from a rescue squad to start rescue operations.

Regardless of whether victims are found or not, personnel will utilize orange spray paint to draw special symbols and information on the building in plain view where other rescue teams can see. The marking system is standardized so all teams can see that the building was searched and what was found.

Q: What pieces of equipment are used to help locate and rescue people?

Groff: The answer given for the previous question I believe covers most of the equipment used for locating victims. This includes canines, special listening devices and search cameras; however the most important tool we use is our own ears and senses when searching through a building.

For rescuing trapped victims the type of equipment is extremely varied. Because some spaces we work in are very small the equipment used can be as simple as a small gardening shovel you would use to plant flowers with. The piece of equipment can also be as large as a multi-story building and weigh many thousands of pounds such as when we utilize construction cranes to remove large sections of debris. However, for the most part we use rescue equipment that can be carried easily by hand or in small vehicles. A general categorical list of some of the equipment we have to use includes:

  • Small and large concrete chippers and breakers
  • Wood, metal, and concrete cutting saws
  • Hydraulic lifting, spreading, and cutting tools
  • Special air lifting bags
  • Cutting torches
  • All types of hand digging tools and mechanics tools
  • Rope rescue equipment
  • Wood and metal building shoring materials
  • Gasoline powered generators and electrical lights
  • Patient treatment equipment and medicines
  • Patient packaging removal devices

Q: What is the role of the canines in a rescue mission?

Groff: Canines play a very important role in searching for victims. Their sense of smell is very, very good. So good in fact that they are trained to pick-up the scent of a live human being, even when that human being is trapped under many layers of debris. If there is a pathway from under the rubble for that live human scent to travel to an area where the canine can pick it up, they will let us know by barking. Furthermore, a big advantage of a canine is that they can work a large area very quickly.

Search reconnaissance however is a process of implementing multiple redundancies in order to give the potential victim the best chance of being found. Therefore, canines are but one tool in the search arsenal. Even if the canines do not pick up a scent, personnel will still utilize their other tools in the same area to search for victims.

Q: How does the team decide to search a particular area or location?

Groff: First and foremost personnel will try and obtain relevant information from local civilians in or around a collapsed building. Some of the questions rescuers may ask about a particular collapsed building would be:

  • When and where was the last time you heard anyone inside the rubble?
  • What type of building was it (i.e. house, apartment, school?)
  • How many people were inside when it collapsed?
  • Where were the stairwells located before the building collapsed?

Rescue personnel will then quickly study how the building is collapsed and as they are conducting their search over the building they will try and identify collapsed areas that look to have a real potential for survivable void spaces. With their special search tools along with rescue type tools, these void spaces will be searched as thoroughly as possible.

Q: Disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti can happen at any time. What is done so that you and the team can leave on such short notice?

Groff: There are two aspects of this. They are personal readiness and team readiness. Personal readiness means that our personal bags are packed with the appropriate things and ready at all times. Appropriate things include clothing, personal hygiene supplies, and personal safety equipment.

Team readiness refers to the continuous commitment to ensuring the team's tens-of-thousands of pounds of rescue equipment is maintained and ready to be transported by truck or aircraft across the United States or across the world at a moment’s notice. When the word is given that our team has been mobilized to provide rescue assistance, the personnel and equipment come together in short order and the mission begins.

Q: In your opinion, how does Haiti compare to other rescue missions you have been on? Was there anything about this mission that set it apart?

Groff: The sheer amount of destroyed buildings and numbers of people killed and injured from this disaster were at times unbelievable, except for the fact that we were living it. Each day you realized that you can't change the fact the disaster occurred, only that you keep moving forward with the mission and do the best you can and help as many people as you can.

Q: What were the living arrangements while you were in Haiti?

Groff: Our team is equipped to be self-sufficient for up to 14 days. This includes building our own base camp anywhere in a disaster zone. However, on this mission we were fortunate enough to be able to build our base camp within the confines of the U.S. Embassy.

Although much of our time was spent on the streets of Port-au-Prince helping the Haitian citizens, we did spend time at our base camp. When we were there we could sleep on cots in our tents, bathe in our portable showers, and launder our clothes in our makeshift washing machine, which consisted of 50 gallon trash cans with soap water and rinse water. The dryer was a simple clothes line hung between tents. All food came from military MREs or “Meals Ready to Eat” and bottled water.

All in all we were very fortunate with our living conditions in our base camp, our home, especially considering there were thousands of Haitian civilians who lost theirs.

Q: What is your perception of how the Haitian people reacted in receiving help from our U.S. teams?

Groff: Overall, my perception of how the Haitian people felt about us being there was overwhelmingly positive. They were very thankful and appreciative of not only our efforts but the efforts of all of the rescue teams.

Q: Did you find language to be a barrier when trying to communicate with the Haitian people and complete rescues?

Groff: Yes, there were times language was a barrier, especially in the streets trying to get information from local residents. However, many times we had driver/interpreters with us to assist. Also, surprisingly many Haitians understood or could speak basic English.

Q: There was a lot of live news and media coverage from Haiti. In some cases reporters were covering rescues the moment they were taking place. In your opinion, what are some of the positive aspects of having the public see this live coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake?

Groff: I believe it helps people relate and personalize with the terrible situation at hand. With this I think people across the world collectively provided any assistance they could through various relief efforts. Efforts I am sure they would appreciate if they found themselves or their family in a similar situation.

Q: There are many rewards that come along with a career such as yours. What personal rewards do you get out of being able to do what you do?

Groff: The profound affect you can have on people's lives through your actions and to be able to do so alongside some of the greatest team members you will ever come across.

Q: Towards the end of the Haiti mission the Task Force visited an orphanage. How do you think this experience affected the team? What was the team able to do for the orphanage?

Groff: Our team was actually able to visit more than one orphanage. My rescue squad alongside a rescue squad from Los Angeles County had the privilege of setting up several tents at one such orphanage. At the time of our visit they had approximately 75 kids living there, but with the additional tents we set up they were anticipating being able to house another 100 kids. When our work was done there the children sang us several songs to show their appreciation. After many tough assignments this assignment provided a positive experience my friends and I will never forget.

Q: Stress levels must be extremely high and members must get exhausted not just physically but mentally during missions. What are some of the things members do to keep their spirits and morale high during missions and stay focused?

Groff: Each person has to deal with that stress in their own and different way. However one interesting stress reliever that occurred several nights in our base camp later in the mission was that of haircuts. With the weather conditions just simply hot, many of the guys were glad to lose their hair, mine included. Many would gather around to watch their fellow teammates have all of their hair removed via electric shear clippers, while others only got theirs trimmed. Either way it was a good time.

Q: During missions such as Haiti, the Task Force can be deployed for up to 14 days. This means there is limited or no communication with family members back home. How difficult is this for you and especially your loved ones that are concerned with your safety while you're gone?

Groff: It is always difficult to be separated from your families for any length of time, especially when many of them never got to say their goodbyes before we left. However, our leadership back home does a good job of keeping the families updated on the team's progress. Deployed personnel did receive printed emails sent by family and friends throughout the mission. This was definitely a morale booster for everyone. Furthermore, with thousands of U.S. military service personnel still deployed around the world for months and even a year away from their families, it helps put things in perspective.

Q: After the earthquake in Haiti there were a lot of aftershocks that took place. What are some of the thoughts that go through your head when you're in a collapsed building and you feel it begin to shake again?

Groff: Oh boy… here we go!

Q: The media did a great job at trying to cover everything that went on with the earthquake. Do you feel as though there is anything important that went on that the public was not able to see?

Groff: Honestly, I did not watch any television news while we were deployed so I don't know exactly what was and was not reported. I will share with you one aspect that most likely not reported but was most impressive to many of our rescue personnel, and that was the resiliency of our Haitian drivers and interpreters. Many of them had lost their homes, their family members, and were short on food and water. However they continued to show up for their regular jobs at the U.S. Embassy and were glad to drive and direct us around the city and communicate with the local population. They helped us tremendously in providing assistance to the people of Haiti while enduring tragedy of their own. It was a real testament to their courage.

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