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One Year Later: Moving Past September 11th

Author: Harold Schapelhouman, CA TF3

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally published in our Sept/Oct 2002 issue. 

As we all have read or witnessed through news accounts since September 11th, 2001, our world has changed.  Those of us in Emergency Management have seen both positive responses in understanding, establishing and mitigating threat, or risk, to our citizens, but we have also seen what I would consider to be the "chicken little" mentality where an uneasy society sees a terrorist around every corner and in every shadow. 

As the Task Force Leader for one of the Nations 28 Urban Search and Rescue Teams I have also see an unprecedented level of support for these teams and the National Response System since September 11th, and a call to increase their capability and funding support that has all eyes on Washington D.C., as literally millions of dollars and enhanced capabilities are in the balance.

Their still however exists a tremendous lack of understanding in the Response Community of what Federal Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces can do, and who they really are.  First off it's US&R, not to be confused with our friends in the US Army Reserve who use the acronym USAR.  Secondly, although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) loves to take credit for the program, the reality is that local responders working in conjunction with the Federal Government developed this program, and today when you say "FEMA Task Force" you are really looking at local responders from hundreds of agencies who predominantly represent not only the Fire Service, but also Law Enforcement, Emergency Medical Services, State Offices of Emergency Services and a very dedicated group of civilian professionals. 

Bottom line: the Feds couldn't do it without them, and, quite honestly, if it wasn't for the good graces of sponsoring and participating local governmental agencies, the dedication and persistence of their professional members, and the selflessness of their civilian personnel, their would be no National Response System because the grant money doesn't cover the cost of training let alone the need to purchase, train with and maintain between a 1.8 to 2.5 million dollar equipment cache.  Add in recouping your costs after a deployment like the World Trade Center, where it takes from months to over a year just to cover your costs, and many people might question why they do it all.

The bigger picture is that the Federal US&R Task Forces are America’s Special Forces of Disaster Response and a great example of what a National Mutual Aid system could look like.  It's not perfect, and we have a long way to go, but despite what I have read from others mostly outside of the system, it has great promise and after having responded to floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorist attacks, I've seen it work in ways that most people have never even appreciated.

Above: California US&R Task Force 3 leader Harold Schapelhouman on deployment in New York City last September.  Integrating a Task Force into local operations can be challenging, but lessons can be learned to enhance future cooperation.

When a Task Force shows up it's not there to take over anyone's incident, it's there to complement and enhance field operations.  Based upon the Incident Command System, the local jurisdiction having authority is in charge, or in complex situations a Unified Command Structure may be in place.  But based upon FEMA's promotional techniques or history, many agencies still fear, or loathe, Federal Involvement.

Add in turf issues, shock value, personal attachment, and utter chaos and you've got yourself a disaster where the real skill comes in the diplomacy of telling a guy knee deep in problems, during the most significant incident of his or her life, that you’re with the Federal Government and you're there to help!

But the structure of the Task Force is effective and can improve, enhance, and complement active disaster field operations through the use of Technical Specialists such as Structural Engineers, Physicians, Heavy Equipment Operators, Hazardous Materials Specialists, and Search and Rescue Groups that when well trained, organized, managed, and funded, can become your best resource. 

Not to long ago I read an article from a skeptic that existing US&R Task Forces had never saved a victims life.  Depending upon the context of that comment, it is both correct and incorrect.  I have witnessed first hand Task Force members during a California flooding situation execute lifesaving extractions and rescues.  Although the Federal Government still does not embrace an all-risk response profile that includes flooding and Swift Water Rescues, the State of California Office Of Emergency Services does, and has empowered its 8 US&R Task Forces with critical lifesaving capability that has paid dividends in lives saved.  In addition, add in enhanced local capability for Task Force sponsors and participating agencies for day-to-day responses, as well as an exemplary disaster incident site safety record, and once again I have watched what well-organized and trained personnel can do in the field to raise the bar and truly be helpful.

I don't believe in experts, because each situation is new and different, but I do believe in being humble, respectful, and patient when I arrive at any disaster incident.  In the chaos that is created, raw emotion is often in the air along with unbelievable stress, incredible pressures, fatigue, conflicting priorities, individuals who have their own agendas, competing resources, and sometimes even frustration and fear.

It's ludicrous and dangerous to expect that everyone who wears a gold badge, or took a class, or even knows the incident command system will be able to be successful without some skilled help.

That is also not to say that the Federal Task Forces are the end-all solution.  But life is a learning experience, and all of the Task Forces have gone out the door now, some multiple times, and the value of those experiences and exposures are no different than moving through probation to becoming a veteran or master of your craft.  Time and experiences are the greatest of teachers.

The hard lessons of the US&R community are the realities of working daily within a Federal System that works in weeks, months and years when your daily reality may be in seconds, minutes and hours.  Progress is often slow, but change is in the wind, and the recent move from within the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Response and Recovery Branch to the United States Fire Administration has most of us holding our breath hoping that many of the past dysfunctions will be corrected and that the program with its small but dedicated Federal Staff will grow.

Other harsh realities exist as well for those who do respond.  During deployments to Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center, extensive human recovery operations skewed the rescue concept, and created valuable lessons in the uncomfortable realities of terrorist events.  Add in human disarticulations and the need for extensive decontamination criteria, debris removal, integration of heavy equipment, and knowing where the line between rescue and recovery will be, and you only begin to touch the surface of the complexities and discomforts of these types of events.

After standing among the debris of earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and both the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center events, I find myself able to offer a unique perspective tested by fire and personal sacrifice along a very difficult and painful path.

"Be careful for what you wish for," I told our team members prior to leaving for New York.  The idealistic and underlying theme of the potential for live rescues and visions of grandeur in service and sacrifice to a cause is often not proportional to the harsh realities of catastrophic disaster sites where extensive life loss can numb and overwhelm the most seasoned of veterans.  It is innately similar to a war experience.

The harshness and callousness of unimaginable death and destruction can be pushed back based upon the realities and risks that a trained rescuer may have to directly deal with to be both successful and survive in this environment during the event.  But those images, smells, sounds and discomforts are like baggage that those individuals will carry with them the rest of their lives. 

Praised, worshiped and even elevated to heroic status, the discomfort with moving past what is in one’s mind’s eye and heart creates a contradiction that may take years, a lifetime, or may never be fully revealed or understood.  Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) is important and invaluable if done correctly, but various events have shown that one shoe does not fit all, and each individual is left to truly find their own way back.  Strength can often be found in others who experienced the same thing.

The harsh realities of September 11th are that we can't bring back those who died.  That may not seem profound to someone reading this who has never been to a major disaster, but the pressures and vindication felt by those in the rubble pile are hard to explain and human anguish is a powerful instrument.  But if there is to be solace and honor for those who died, it should be to make sure we in the Emergency Response business get it right and are more prepared next time.

I also believe we have a responsibility to the public to not only be prepared and ready for catastrophic responses, but also to truly bring back honor, respect, service, sacrifice, integrity, and excellence as the mantra of our existence, so that we are truly seen as pillars of strength, organization and calm in the face of danger.  New York and the Pentagon set the standard; the rest is up to us.

At the time of this writing, Harold Schapelhouman was the Division Chief in charge of special operations with the Menlo Park (CA) Fire District and Task Force Leader with CA-TF3.  He is now the Fire Chief of his agency and continues to be a leader in firefighting and US&R operations and management, with more than 30 years experience in the fire service.

 

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