BY BRETT M. MARTINEZ
An urban search and rescue task force (US&R TF) rarely deploys within the community where its members normally serve. But that happened when the Suffolk County US&R TF 1 deployed for Hurricane Sandy response from October 28 to October 31, 2012.
Long Island is 118 miles long and 23 miles at its widest spot. It has a population of more than 7.6 million (2010 census), of which Suffolk County makes up 1.5 million (2010 census). Most communities are densely populated. The island includes the New York City boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn to the west and Nassau and Suffolk counties to the east and is considered urban to suburban. Its population density is greatest in Queens and Brooklyn and declines as one travels east. With more than 100 miles of coastline, a barrier beach community on its southern shoreline (which creates the Great South Bay separating it from the Atlantic Ocean), and the Long Island Sound on its northern shoreline, the island is a mecca for recreational boating and shoreline living.
However, during a hurricane or a significant winter storm, the angle at which Long Island sits relative to the continental United States results in a unique storm surge effect not seen along any other points of the East Coast. To further complicate the situation, the island is linked to the continental United States by only seven bridges and two tunnels. Any significant event could easily isolate the island. With this in mind, many New York State officials were concerned about the effects of storm surges on Long Island and its possible isolation.
In 2008, Suffolk County officials began developing a local US&R capability with TF members drawn from the multiple public safety volunteer and career departments in the county. Starting in late 2009 and for the next three years, the TF members studied target hazards and took part in mobilization exercises (MobEx) in which they applied their skills in disaster response scenarios. Target hazards included eight South Shore communities, including three that historically have flooded during coastal storms (Amityville, Copaige, Lindenhurst), and West Islip, West Sayville, Sayville, Mastic Beach, and Center Moriches. After previous deployments, MobExs, and discussions with other US&R TFs, the best type of boat to use for most high water rescue operations in densely populated areas would be a flat-bottomed metal boat called a johnboat. In the wake of Hurricane Irene, I considered combining high-water rescue vehicles (2½- or five-ton troop transport trucks that can operate in water four feet deep) with the metal flat-bottomed johnboats for rescue. Most TFs employ rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) with one or two johnboats in reserve.
Fire Island was a separate target hazard. The TF’s 2011 Mob-Ex occurred at the United States Coast Guard Station with the Coast Guard’s participation (photos 1, 2).
|(1) Mobilization Exercise 2011 was held at the United States Coast Guard Station on Fire Island; it involved a hurricane response scenario almost identical to Hurricane Sandy. (Photos by Dennis Whittam.)|
|(2) Suffolk County TF1 prepares for deployment by helicopter during Hurricane Sandy.|
As the US&R TF program manager, I developed this MobEx to familiarize TF personnel with the barrier beach community. All team members had to understand the island’s geography and tactical hazards. Specifically, they needed to know the best way to reach each community-by land, sea, or air-and the best sites at which to load/unload resources and rescuees; and how to configure a load for land, sea, and air transport, since it is different for each. Training and drilling on this beforehand saved a tremendous amount of time and effort during an actual response. After some limited deployments and completing three MobExs, Suffolk County TF1 was preparing for its final test before becoming a fully mission-capable county asset and considered for typing as a New York State asset. This final dress rehearsal was to take place on October 31 through November 4, 2012, at the Center for National Response Tunnel Complex in Gallagher, West Virginia. At that time, the TF was to fully exercise all its capabilities under real-world conditions to validate the three years of work. This was critical to securing future funding and recruiting future members.
Before the 2012 MobEx could occur, the TF was deployed for three days for Superstorm Sandy. The commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Services requested the Suffolk County Task Force 1 to deploy for 72 hours on October 28 because of the impending storm’s magnitude. The state US&R team New York Task Force 2 (NY-TF2) was also deploying to Suffolk County. The task force leaders and planning section chiefs of NY-TF2 and Suffolk County TF1 met to establish the base of operation and incident action plan (IAP) (photo 3).
|(3) Suffolk County TF1 and NY-TF1 jointly planning the Hurricane Sandy mission.|
The TF leaders and plans sections discussed the available resources, capabilities, and historical target hazards. Using local geographic information system specialists, they developed target area maps and formed TF specialist squads. TF leaders and plans section personnel studied the maps for best access routes and alternate routes to residential areas as well as the topography to identify high ground and local streams that would become rivers during the storm. Simultaneously, the operations section rescue specialists considered methods to use johnboats or RHIBs to accomplish the potential mission. Rescue specialists further developed my earlier idea of combining high-water rescue vehicles with the johnboats. We would deploy and tether the boats to the trucks for rapid recovery. This would save tremendous time and effort for rescuers, who otherwise would have to row way back to the vehicle in near-hurricane conditions (75-mph winds and high seas). Employing standard incident command system forms, the command structure, communication plans, and medical plans were established.
With the IAP in place on the morning of October 29, the TFs prepared their troops and resources for deployment. That afternoon, government officials requested that TF leaders meet with local liaison officers of the National Weather Service, the United States Coast Guard, the New York State Air National Guard, and local law enforcement. State elected government officials requested a plan to rescue residents trapped on the barrier beach of Fire Island by no later than 8:00 p.m. Suffolk County TF1 had trained for this precise situation during Mob-Ex 2011, and the TFs quickly prepared for this rescue effort. With the tactical action plan in place, we briefed the elected officials.
Before the mission could be implemented, on the evening of October 29, extensive flooding and multiple fires occurred throughout New York City’s Breezy Point neighborhood in Queens and in Nassau County’s South Shore communities. Since these communities were overwhelmed by fires, which were also breaking out along Suffolk’s South Shore, mutual-aid requests for fire suppression resources were outpacing assets, so local fire chiefs had few if any water rescue resources available. Fortunately, the IAP and the target hazard assessment had addressed these needs. When the communities began requesting mutual aid for water rescue, the two TFs were ready and able to deploy. Local TF members and law enforcement integrated with NY-TF2 members and used high-water rescue vehicles and johnboats to form special boat squads. They consisted of at least four swift water swimmers, three high-water rescue vehicle operators, a driver, and two assistants (usually law enforcement officers).They deployed to the five of the nine target hazard areas previously identified (photo 4).
|(4) NY-TF2 deploys with Suffolk County TF1 for water rescue operations.|
The combined TFs conducted water rescue operations along the target areas until all known rescues (200) were completed by 3:00 a.m. At 7:00 a.m., the Fire Island mission commenced, and by 4:00 p.m. that day, 15 individuals who had not evacuated were rescued and accounted for. With all missions successful, NY-TF2 was released with thanks and redeployed to Nassau County, where additional rescue operations were needed. Suffolk County TF1 continued assisting Fire Island agencies with secondary searches and damage assessment until 7:30 p.m., October 31, when it stood down.
The TF was deployed again on November 6 for 24 hours during winter storm Athena. The National Weather Service forecast called for possible local flooding and rain turning to ice and then snow. Because of the extensive damage from Sandy, there was little left to protect the shoreline from additional flooding and damage, and water rescue assets had been damaged during the prior storm. Fortunately, this second storm did not cause the same destruction as Sandy, and the TF was able to stand down within 12 hours.
The primary difficulty in deploying a US&R TF within the home jurisdiction is personnel availability. With the request to activate (or predeploy) the TF before the anticipated event, it was difficult to obtain a 72-hour commitment from all members. Many home agencies’ incident commanders have difficulty releasing personnel for operations outside their primary organization prior to a significant event because of the multitude of unknowns, and many TF members are also leaders in their home agencies.
Since 80 percent of the Suffolk County TF are members from volunteer departments and often the best trained and most active members, their organizations find it hard to release them at the onset of an incident. Just as important are the TF members’ commitments to their families. It is difficult to leave your family members if they are not prepared for what they may confront. Having sufficient qualified personnel available is critical and required in all positions to account for the loss of one or two. For example, more than 50 TF members are trained as rescue specialists, but the TF will deploy with just 15 to 20. The TF planning section should work with the local office of emergency management (OEM) to assess the communities within its jurisdiction for the potential impact.
Suffolk County TF1’s local knowledge provided NY-TF2 vital intelligence in deployment. It helped in finding the best access routes to and from the target areas. Geographical positioning systems may route assets through areas that flooding and storm damage have made impassible, critically delaying responders. Finding new routes in heavily damaged or darkened neighborhoods becomes time consuming, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area. Local knowledge is a great plus here.
Most task forces employ RHIBs with one or two johnboats in reserve. In that case, the two TFs would originally have been able to field only eight boat squads. Fortunately, Suffolk County TF1 knew that additional johnboats were available from the County Parks Department.
Knowing beforehand the best deployment point and having a working relationship with the people who operate it paid off when the commanding officer of the United States Coast Guard station said, “We did this exact mission last year with your US&R TF.”
● BRETT M. MARTINEZ has been a member of the Hauppauge (NY) Fire Department since 1983 and a fire marshal since 1990. He is a state of New York-certified level II fire investigator and peace officer and an ATF-certified accelerant detection canine handler. Martinez is a member of the U.S. Attorney’s Anti-Terrorist Advisory Council. A National Incident Management System qualified Plans Section chief, he has written numerous Incident Action Plans for man-made and natural disasters. He has an associate degree in fire science from Suffolk County Community College and is the author of Multiple Fire Setters: The Process of Tracking and Identification (Fire Engineering, 2002).
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