MISSISSIPPI DEPLOYMENT: HEEDING THE LESSONS

BY MICHAEL J. DECHELBOR

Although our department has been on many deployments in the past, including Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Charley, the Osceola tornadoes, and major wildfires, I was surprised, because of the distance, to hear that Manatee County, Florida, was put on standby to possibly respond with a 22-person strike team to Waveland, Mississippi. Area fire departments were notified that five engines and two command vehicles were to respond. On September 1 at approximately 2200 hours, we were called to report and would leave as soon as the team could be put together. By 2330 hours, the team was assembled and was headed in the direction of Waveland. Driving within the maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour and after making many stops for refueling and a pre-staging in Tallahassee, the strike team finally arrived 22 hours later at the command post at Stennis Space Center. We were deployed through September 10.

Initially, we were housed at the Stennis Fire Department. It was bursting at the seams already, as many of the local firefighters didn’t have homes left. They graciously housed and fed the whole strike team (an additional 22 people). Their friendliness and hospitality, even during this time of personal hardship, were very humbling.

The next morning, we were deployed to a command post in Waveland, where we started to see the full extent of the devastation to these communities (see photos). Local fire departments were devastated; many were unable to respond but were still doing the best they could for their communities. The first few days were frustrating. Understandably, there was a lack of organization and communication abilities, which made it difficult for our team to be used efficiently. We were put in areas where we could assist local fire departments and the public with supplies; however, the areas to which we were assigned seemed to have sufficient supplies already. We spent much of our time on standby waiting for assignments.


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Neighborhoods in Waveland, Mississippi, were completely destroyed. Homes were moved from their foundations, and vehicles were repositioned throughout the neighborhoods. (Photos by author.)

By day three, the team was moved to one of the local vacant space center office buildings, which was under generator power. By then, we were covering fire department areas in five local jurisdictions, doing whatever we could for them and the communities. Several local departments had lost stations and/or apparatus and were unable to respond. These departments were doing their best to put things back in order. I believe they were still in a state of shock over what they had just gone through. Many of these firefighters were homeless, yet they tirelessly continued to do whatever they could for their communities.


A beachfront home that was completely destroyed.

All five engines were spread out in five local areas. Our duties included staging at local fire departments or in central areas to assist as needed. Humanitarian efforts, helping individuals secure their homes and property, were a big part of our duties. Search and rescue was done in conjunction with local fire department officials in areas that had not been searched. Normal medical calls and vehicle accidents were responded to, as were fire related calls.


The strike team found this mobile home completely involved and extinguished the fire.

Prior to the engines having been spread out, the team was returning to staging when we noticed a large black column of smoke in the distance. We investigated and found a converted doublewide mobile home fully involved (photo 5). We thought we were only the first on-scene, but no other departments responded. With five pumpers and 22 personnel, we made pretty short work of it.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

• Communication was a huge issue. Using the radio systems in our vehicles, the strike team had an approximately two-mile range in which to communicate within the team. Outside communication with local authorities was nonexistent. The team had one satellite phone, which worked sporadically. This was the biggest obstacle to our efforts. More satellite phones or other portable communication systems would be necessary to effectively communicate. This adversely affected all emergency officials and operations.

• Organization improved throughout our deployment. Initially, local and outside authorities were overwhelmed and struggling to keep up with the demands. We needed to be patient and understand delays in assignments. Our contact officials (Florida management strike team) did an outstanding job coordinating our strike team’s efforts.

• Fueling the vehicles turned out to be quite an adventure. As we neared the Florida line, fuel was getting scarce, and scheduled fueling stops for emergency vehicles had not been set up. This left us having to fuel in service stations with long lines and limits on quantities of fuel, which delayed our response. A possible remedy would be to bring a fuel truck along with the team.

• Another obstacle was using credit cards to purchase fuel, food, and other supplies. Because purchases were out of the ordinary (large amounts of fuel, many different locations), credit card companies put a stop on the use of cards. Also, when in these devastated areas, credit cards are often useless. A possible solution would be to notify companies ahead of time about deployments or allocating cash for necessary strike team purchases.

• A team needs to be self-sufficient and able to supply its own food, shelter, and communication. We were told to bring three days of supplies for team members; this would not have been enough. Fortunately, a full service tent area was eventually set up, but early responders must be able to set up in a parking lot, with its own bedding, tents, cooking abilities, and internal communications. US&R teams working in the area by design have these capabilities.

• Be prepared to complete assignments and tasks that are outside of your job training. We were asked to staff the Stennis Airport Fire Department because there was no coverage. The airport was busier than usual because of the large amount of supplies being flown into the area. There were no airport fire department personnel available, and all crash rescue trucks had been destroyed in the storm. We were staffing the station in case of an aircraft emergency. Although we had neither training nor equipment for this type of emergency, we prepared as best we could. By the end of our deployment, crash rescue trucks and personnel were brought in to staff the station.

This is only the surface of the lessons learned and future implications to be considered. The biggest lessons were personal. Each individual was humbled and brought back a greater respect and gratitude for what they have. Mississippi and other affected states handled this disaster with great resolve. They will surely come out of this with lessons learned as well. All states that may one day be in the path of another such devastating storm would do well to learn from them as we strive to improve our disaster preparedness and response.

Michael J. Dechelbor has been a suppression captain with Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue since 1988. He is a state-certified instructor, inspector, and EMT.

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