Tornado Challenges Small Department

By Kris Habermehl

On Thursday, April 9, 2015, at approximately 1915 hours local time, the tiny town of Fairdale, at the far northwestern edge of DeKalb County, Illinois, was struck by an EF-4 tornado. The tornado did massive damage to the town. It was one of seven twisters identified by the National Weather Service (NWS) as touching down in the area.

(1) This was the first tornadic storm in the area. It passed 20 miles northwest of Fairdale an hour before the town was hit. [Photo by Jake Miller, Kirkland (IL) Fire Department; other photos by author unless otherwise noted.]
(1) This was the first tornadic storm in the area. It passed 20 miles northwest of Fairdale an hour before the town was hit. [Photo by Jake Miller, Kirkland (IL) Fire Department; other photos by author unless otherwise noted.]

The incident was in the area of responsibility of the all-volunteer Kirkland (IL) Fire District, which covers 85 square miles of mainly open farmland. Three population centers lie within that district, the rural towns of Esmond and Fairdale and the larger town of Kirkland. Esmond, the smallest of these three towns, has a tiny cluster of homes and a grain elevator. Fairdale, all residential, has 500 residents and 70 structures. Kirkland is home to 1,800 residents and has a mix of small businesses and commercial occupancies.

What follows is the story of what went right and what went wrong as the largest event in the history of the Kirkland Fire Department unfolded. Thirty-five members were called on to sort through and manage the almost total destruction of the town in which many of the responders grew up, the town that is home to their families and friends, and the town they thought never would change. Many lessons were learned and many lives were changed forever in the aftermath of the Fairdale tornado.

(2) A screenshot of the NWS radar image taken at 1832 hours, close to the same time as the “real world” in photo 1. The red box near Rockford marks the first supercell storm that missed Fairdale. <i>(Photos 2-3 by author and NOAA/NWS Chicago.) </i>
(2) A screenshot of the NWS radar image taken at 1832 hours, close to the same time as the “real world” in photo 1. The red box near Rockford marks the first supercell storm that missed Fairdale. (Photos 2-3 by author and NOAA/NWS Chicago.)

Predicting and Anticipating the Tornado

For almost a week leading up to the April 9 event, the Storm Prediction Center, the NWS, and other meteorological sources had been predicting trouble in the upper Midwest. Severe thunderstorms were expected, and the certainty of the prediction grew as the week progressed. Forecast turned to reality in the early afternoon of April 9 as the NWS issued a tornado watch effective from just before 1400 hours until 2300 hours. The vigil had begun.

DeKalb County 911 radio broadcast the text of the tornado watch on the fire frequency and sent out word to law enforcement on county high-band within minutes of the NWS issuance. Emergency managers were briefed and local governments notified. Attention turned to online and commercial broadcast sources. It wasn’t long before massive, rotating supercell storms were developing along the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa. Tension and vigilance increased as those storms started tracking northeastward into Illinois. It appeared to be just a matter of time before Illinois would come under fire. The first hint of what was to come was a rapidly intensifying rotation that formed about 20 miles west of Fairdale almost an hour before the long-track event that hit the town.

(3) A second NWS radar screenshot, taken at 1844 hours. The storm that would eventually strike Fairdale has been identified and is marked with a red tornado warning box. The tornado is on the ground near Rochelle, Illinois, and is inside the lowest and largest parallelogram.
(3) A second NWS radar screenshot, taken at 1844 hours. The storm that would eventually strike Fairdale has been identified and is marked with a red tornado warning box. The tornado is on the ground near Rochelle, Illinois, and is inside the lowest and largest parallelogram.

1815 hours: A tornado warning was broadcast, and sirens were sounded in Kirkland. The storm passed by well to the northwest, closer to Rockford and Belvidere, and put down a small EF-0 funnel in open fields; the estimated wind gusts were up to 85 miles per hour (mph). No siren was sounded in Fairdale because the town did not have one.

1855 hours: A truck driver reported a large tornado on the ground west of Rochelle in Ogle County, southwest of Fairdale. It appeared to be heading northeast, toward I-39.

1902 hours: NWS and DeKalb County Dispatch broadcast another warning. The twister was approximated to be one-half mile wide and appeared to have multiple suction vortices, visual indications of a rare, high-end, violent tornado. According to storm chasers and law enforcement, multiple structures, including homes and an occupied restaurant, were hit west and north of Rochelle.

(4) The EF-4 as it neared Fairdale. At this point, the violent funnel is crossing Baseline Road, near the Ogle County-DeKalb County border. The tornado is now only a minute away from striking the town. [Photo by Jake Miller, Kirkland (IL) Fire Department.]
(4) The EF-4 as it neared Fairdale. At this point, the violent funnel is crossing Baseline Road, near the Ogle County-DeKalb County border. The tornado is now only a minute away from striking the town. [Photo by Jake Miller, Kirkland (IL) Fire Department.]

A steady stream of law enforcement reports was coming in on the county high band. Most were accurate in describing the funnel’s location. Social media and commercial sources such as The Weather Channel were following the storm on radar and with mobile chasers nonstop. Two Kirkland firefighters were also on the road chasing the storm. They witnessed the hit on Fairdale and were the first members on scene as debris was still falling and residents were beginning to self-extricate.

1915 hours: Fairdale takes a direct, diagonal hit across the town center.

1916 hours: Tones drop for Kirkland Fire to respond to Fairdale for “multiple houses down.”

(5) The first photo taken from the west of town, looking south from Illinois Route 72. Trees were stripped, and ominous low clouds remained immediately behind the tornado.
(5) The first photo taken from the west of town, looking south from Illinois Route 72. Trees were stripped, and ominous low clouds remained immediately behind the tornado.

The Fairdale Scenario

Most of the homes were wood-frame dwellings and dated back to the early part of the past century. Each property had a water well and septic tank and used liquefied petroleum (LP) gas. Those factors figured in in a multitude of ways as the debris settled. Open septic tanks, ruptured LP feeds, down power lines, and mountains of rain-slickened debris confronted those lucky enough to crawl out of their homes. Adding to the chaos, more funnels were seen in the area, and another band of severe storms loomed as the first response companies arrived.

(6) Fairdale at around 2300 hours on April 9, 2015. All rescues have been completed, the injured were transported, and the site was secured. Debris was soaked from heavy rains that fell during severe storms that raked the scene as initial search and rescue was underway.
(6) Fairdale at around 2300 hours on April 9, 2015. All rescues have been completed, the injured were transported, and the site was secured. Debris was soaked from heavy rains that fell during severe storms that raked the scene as initial search and rescue was underway.

Fairdale sits along Illinois Route 72, roughly five miles west of I-39. It is a busy commercial truck corridor; many drivers pass through Fairdale without really noticing the town. The tornado changed all that. What would normally be rapid east-west access to most of the streets in town was now piled high with debris and a dangerous web of power lines. Kirkland apparatus would have to park on the edge of the debris field or try another point of entry. Fortunately, the lone southern access point, Fairdale Road, provided deep site penetration. The little blacktop road, however, rapidly became problematic, as it turned into the main access for law enforcement, utilities, onlookers, and the relatives of those affected. Fairdale Road became a choke point.

In rural areas, volunteer departments are primarily made up of people from the local community. Firefighting and ambulance duties take on a personal meaning: Members help relatives and friends almost daily. The sense of “one family helping another” goes far when a person or an entire town is down on its worst day. With the advent of social media (the modern equivalent of a phone tree), word that someone-or someplace-is in trouble travels at unprecedented speed. At Fairdale and the other locations hit by the storm, help came fast from all directions. Heavy equipment to clear debris seemed to appear out of nowhere early in the event. Before the technical rescue team or a Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) response could be mustered, friends of the town showed up ready to work. Telling them to “stand by” complicated matters and added a new dynamic to the situation.

(7) At first light the following day, Kirkland firefighters raised the colors over the ruined town.
(7) At first light the following day, Kirkland firefighters raised the colors over the ruined town.

The nuts and bolts of the Fairdale storm are what you would expect from a 200-mph maelstrom. Most structures in town were leveled; debris mixed together; street signs were missing; landmarks were gone. It was the survivors and how they emerged that proved heartbreaking for some and harrowing for others. Two dear friends, next-door neighbors, were the only fatalities. A badly injured woman was rescued from a basement; she will recover. A whole family survived in the only void space left in their basement when their home was swept away. Others presented with injuries consistent with blunt force trauma, punctures, and deep lacerations. Entry into the debris field was slow, and removal and relocation of the injured were of an “improvise, adapt, and overcome” nature. Using doors as backboards and trailers as cots was certainly not the rule, but it helped where rapid egress was necessary.

(8) Looking west along Illinois Route 72 from atop a ladder after posting the colors on a broken tree. Public works crews removed debris from main roads before dawn to speed recovery efforts at first light.
(8) Looking west along Illinois Route 72 from atop a ladder after posting the colors on a broken tree. Public works crews removed debris from main roads before dawn to speed recovery efforts at first light.

Operations

Size-up was fairly straightforward. Even a cursory glance from the edge of the debris field gave a sense of the magnitude of destruction and potential for injury and entrapment. In the first few minutes, there were numerous audible cries for help as neighbors searched for each other. LP tanks were hissing, concrete manhole covers were dislodged over septic tanks, and the stench of propane and sewage began to waft through the piles. By the time the first firefighters climbed over the rubble, many of the injured had been pulled out and were lying in the open. That exposure soon became a new concern as a second round of violent storms erupted as search and rescue operations began. Critically injured residents had to be removed to shelter or protect in place as large hail, dangerous lightning, torrential rain, and heavy wind raked the town. Responders were in danger from close lightning strikes, and already traumatized survivors were terrified.

(9) Debris from neighboring structures became blended, and all landmarks disappeared. The town center was pulverized.
(9) Debris from neighboring structures became blended, and all landmarks disappeared. The town center was pulverized.

In Illinois, we use the power of MABAS. Prearranged responses are tied to the level of alarm requested, and additional requests for specialized equipment and personnel are designed into the matrix. Although MABAS is typically the tool of command officers, any member may theoretically request a MABAS response. At Fairdale, a responding lieutenant asked for a technical rescue team (TRT) from MABAS Division 6 and MABAS Division 8 to respond. The need was apparent. The tasks were overwhelming for the initiating department. The request came within minutes of the tornado.

It’s readily acknowledged that “what happens in the first five minutes dictates what will happen in the next five hours” when mitigating incidents. Tornado strikes are so massive in scale and scope that the accepted timeline for progress gets stretched. Not all damage or injury may be readily apparent as command is organizing on site. At Fairdale, the initial response was into the town center; however, within 10 minutes, more information was received about homes that had been hit upstream and downstream from the town.

(10) Some structures near the main damage path remained somewhat intact. Many that appeared salvageable had been wrenched off their foundations and would require eventual teardown.
(10) Some structures near the main damage path remained somewhat intact. Many that appeared salvageable had been wrenched off their foundations and would require eventual teardown.

We had to notify personnel that they should be ready to redeploy if necessary, based on law enforcement and local citizen reports. In the moments after such a monumental event, tunnel vision is a danger.

Commanders in battle during World War II faced some of the same issues as Command faced at Fairdale. Once Kirkland Chief Chad Connell had asked for extra alarms on two separate boxes, the groundswell of incoming units rose quickly. Given the damage path, which basically cut off some mutual-aid companies and detoured others, the flood of arrivals from the northwest and to the southeast made for two staging areas separated by mounds of debris. Emergency medical services (EMS) units-there were many-for the 22 people injured found it hard to get in along the single-access route from EMS staging. No longer hurting for assistance, Command now found it a daunting task to manage the constant arrivals.

(11) The national spotlight shone on Fairdale-and, thereby, Kirkland. Media were constantly present and added another consideration when dealing with the disaster. Here, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner faces the cameras at the emergency medical services staging area.
(11) The national spotlight shone on Fairdale-and, thereby, Kirkland. Media were constantly present and added another consideration when dealing with the disaster. Here, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner faces the cameras at the emergency medical services staging area.

Command Structure

The Kirkland Fire Department is fortunate to have several seasoned veteran firefighters from large departments as associate members. When it became obvious that a mass-casualty incident had occurred, many moving parts of the response were delegated to those senior members with field experience in handling such large-scale incidents. Although initially cumbersome and somewhat confusing, the combined efforts of a core of seasoned command staff rapidly consolidated and streamlined staging and established a traffic flow. While a select few command officers ran staging and assigned duties to the troops, the overall incident commander (IC) became available for face-to-face consultation with MABAS companies.

Within the first hours, essential elements of coordinated command and control settled into place, and the initial “blitz hasty” primary and secondary searches gave way to directed TRT and USAR dog searches. Law enforcement removed nonessential and unauthorized personnel and established a security perimeter. The DeKalb County Sheriff’s office was formulating the beginnings of an accountability list, and liaison between fire and police was beginning. Night had fallen soon after the storm passed, and MABAS light towers seemed to be everywhere. Numbers of the dead, injured, and missing fluctuated wildly, and the media were descending in droves on the firehouse in Kirkland, just five miles away. Police were called to the firehouse for crowd control.

(12) Thanks to appeals on social media, mountains of donated goods began pouring in within hours of the tornado. The firehouse rapidly became a warehouse and supply depot.
(12) Thanks to appeals on social media, mountains of donated goods began pouring in within hours of the tornado. The firehouse rapidly became a warehouse and supply depot.

A media briefing was held shortly after midnight, roughly five hours after the tornado struck. The department chief, public information officer (PIO), county sheriff, and coroner all spoke of what had transpired and the work that still needed to be done. Limited information on residents’ status was available but sharing it was deferred until the next briefing when more would be known.

What was to become an overwhelming outpouring of support from the community and the world was just starting to flow into the firehouse-cases of water, food, clothing, and personal care supplies were coming by the carload. That supply chain would remain strong for weeks and took over the fire station, which became a public and media rallying point, thanks to its size and close proximity to the stricken town.

(13) Vehicles of all sizes littered the debris field. Heavily damaged cars like this one had to be checked for potential survivors who may have sought refuge from the storm. Rolled-over cars presented a hazard from spilled fuel and other fluids.
(13) Vehicles of all sizes littered the debris field. Heavily damaged cars like this one had to be checked for potential survivors who may have sought refuge from the storm. Rolled-over cars presented a hazard from spilled fuel and other fluids.

Dawn on the following day brought the national media into town for a first look at the mountain of debris that had once been Fairdale. The “home team” of Kirkland firefighters was relieved the night before to rest so members could return to the site and begin support activities for the TRT team. All but one resident was accounted for; her body was recovered after a short search. Once all residents were accounted for, department members performed another area search and identified hazards such as hidden or leaking LP tanks, open wells, and open septic pits.

(14) Organic matter and mud piled up in tangled mats that obscured many hazards. Most LP tanks, like the one on the right, ripped free of their mounts and rolled or flew into debris. Feed lines were sheared away and regulators were damaged, causing product to escape.
(14) Organic matter and mud piled up in tangled mats that obscured many hazards. Most LP tanks, like the one on the right, ripped free of their mounts and rolled or flew into debris. Feed lines were sheared away and regulators were damaged, causing product to escape.

“Fairdale General Store”

Within the first 24 hours, “permanent” locations were selected for law enforcement scene command and the Salvation Army canteen. A more flexible area in the town center was selected for daily fire/EMS staging. At this point, something unforeseen occurred. In an effort to speed relief supplies to survivors and those who came to help them, it was determined that those items would be located in a well-traveled, accessible, and easily recognizable spot. A flatbed equipment trailer that was mistakenly left in the EMS parking area was transformed into the “Fairdale General Store.” Stocked with all of the essentials for safe operation on the debris pile and staffed by firefighters, the impromptu “store” became a rallying point for residents and a place where comforting words mixed with an atmosphere of self-sufficiency and a sense of order amid the chaos. Soon after the “General Store” opened, it became universally known for the gentle manner in which the firefighters and EMTs staffed it and began the process of healing and recovery. It was consistent, it was useful, and it was friends helping friends.

(15) The damage path as seen from the air. The view is back along the direction from where the tornado came. Suction vortices churned up the dirt in the still barren fields, making tracking the funnel’s path into and out of town quite easy.
(15) The damage path as seen from the air. The view is back along the direction from where the tornado came. Suction vortices churned up the dirt in the still barren fields, making tracking the funnel’s path into and out of town quite easy.

Lessons Learned/Reinforced

The basic takeaway points from such a catastrophe came out of a post-incident debriefing conducted months after the event with the mutual-aid partners and command staff that ran the incident. A summary of those points follow:

  • Put people in the right position. Use lesser trained personnel for work teams.
  • Have Command/Staging/EMS all within walking distance.
  • Ensure that key personnel are in readily identifiable “permanent” locations.
  • Involve police early for scene security and traffic control, not for search and rescue.
  • Keep access routes clear of personal vehicles, and keep key intersections clear of equipment.
  • In a disaster, “players play.” Let specialized teams (USAR/TRT) work and release the “home team” to check on family, rehab, and get ready for the extended operations ahead. It won’t be popular, but it will be necessary.
  • Establish a large perimeter. Choke points where IDs are being checked and “the need to be there” status is questioned slow everything down.
  • Use local residents to walk with the TRT leaders to point out properties. They know what should be there.
  • Have an experienced PIO conduct and moderate the media briefings.
  • Note who went with EMS to compare with police accountability records.
  • Spray-paint addresses on the pavement as accurately as possible.
  • Always check with the Rescue Branch about clearing debris piles before clearing any roads.
  • Reassess box cards. Consider establishing “Disaster Box” cards that differ from day-to-day fire/EMS box cards to pull resources from farther away.
  • The IC should have an aide to listen to and filter out radio traffic to prevent missing or misinterpreting traffic.
  • Have a scribe ready to take notes and keep ideas orderly for the IC.
  • Keep staging mobile and deployable. Keep staging back from the scene so vehicles can be sent in individually.
  • Don’t hesitate to use old frequencies for radio communication on teams.
  • Use social media, and get local government officials onboard. Social media is a good way to keep the media informed and is less apt to interfere at the site.
  • Watch Facebook for false and misleading information.
  • Set up and maintain a central supply point for residents and volunteer relief workers at the fire/EMS staging area during the “relief” phase of the event. Water, safety supplies, over-the-counter medications, tools, personal protective gear, salvage tarps, and a message center go a long way toward peace of mind and a sense of stability for those on site.
  • There were two female fatalities, ages 67 and 69, who were friends and neighbors. One was recovered immediately; the other was recovered from the debris the following day. Eleven people were hospitalized. Nine had self-extricated or were helped to get out of their homes by civilians. Firefighters rescued two, who had suffered severe injuries. One had a broken back. He wasn’t trapped but needed packaging before he could be removed from his damaged home; the other had a severe head injury.

Fairdale has seen a kind of rebirth. With the help of numerous volunteers from the public and private sectors, friends, neighbors, relatives, and strangers, the town is rising again. New foundations sit along old streets. New power poles and lighting illuminate those streets at night. A new community septic field is in place to accommodate the new layout. Residents watch the snow but think about the sky. Flower-adorned crosses sit where loved ones were lost, a stone’s-throw away from a brand new tornado siren.

(16) Mutual-aid departments took turns cycling through the on-site support operation in the days that followed the initial response.
(16) Mutual-aid departments took turns cycling through the on-site support operation in the days that followed the initial response.

KRIS HABERMEHL is an 11-year member of the Kirkland Community (IL) Fire District and a volunteer firefighter/EMT. He is a 25-year veteran of Chicago television and radio.

 

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