Fifty-four members of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue task force helped out in North Carolina and South Carolina as Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc throughout the area, flooding coastal areas throughout the southeastern United States.
Because much of the area had already been evacuated, the task force didn’t end up rescuing anyone.
Instead, workers drilled and “got comfortable with what they needed to do. We were there if we were needed, and we maximized our time,” said Monte Fitch, a battalion chief in Montgomery County who headed the recent rescue effort.
“We were basically available. We were never actually deployed,” Fitch said of the urban task force.
By the time the hurricane hit Georgia Oct. 8, the Montgomery County rescue workers, who are part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had already arrived and were busily learning the area and drilling.
Montgomery County is one of only 28 urban search and rescue task forces throughout the country. Each is trained the same way and has the same equipment, explained Pete Piringer, the County’s fire and rescue spokesperson.
Six of the County’s rescue workers, who are part of the Hazardous Material Push Package (HEPP) task force, assisted in decontamination work, making sure anyone who had to be rescued was rid of sewage, fuel, oil or other contaminants on them while they fled the raging waters, said Fitch.
The goal was to ensure no one brought any contaminants into a hospital, he said.
Montgomery County is one of only seven HEPP teams in the country.
Other rescue workers, who are part of the Incident Support Team, helped out with communications, making sure various departments could speak with each other.
If needed, this team could have enabled communications if the hurricane had wiped out the area’s infrastructure.
Like much of firefighting and rescue work, the members of the task force busily worked to be ready. “We are there in case we are needed,” he said. They drilled and remained active throughout their time down South, which lasted about a week.
“As the storm was coming in, we were looking at the radar,” Fitch said. They printed out and studied flood maps for the region “up and down the sea coast,” he said. They also used traffic camera apps for views of specific areas.
Once they knew what to expect and where the storm actually was, members of the task force simulated drills, going to specific locations and practicing as if there actually were people who needed saving. They even went by boat through the waters. Because they had just studied the flood maps, they knew what to expect and how deep the water would be, Fitch said.
Montgomery County’s rescuers were stationed in Fayetteville and Lumberton, North Carolina, and Columbia and Charlestown, South Carolina. Previously, the task force has been deployed to other hurricanes and assisted following the attack on the Pentagon on 9-11.
It isn’t all that common that they are deployed. “It’s not very frequently right now, which is a good thing,” he said.
The task force has been sent out three or four times in one year during hurricane season and then not again for two or three years, he added.
The 28 national task forces are divided into geographical areas.
During dispatches, a team is called upon to deploy either if it is located nearby or if it is one of the top three task forces at that particular time. The list changes regularly and is on a rotating schedule, Fitch said.
The County’s full team consists of 72 rescue workers and 10 support drivers.