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On the ground in Puerto Rico with Maryland’s Task Force 1

What to expect as task forces deploy to hurricane ravaged areas


Courtesy/Pete Piringer, MCFRS

FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces have been activated to aid citizens in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona made landfall Sunday as a Category 1 storm. The storm dumped nearly 30 inches of rain in 72 hours in some parts of the country after making landfall at the extreme southwestern coast of Puerto Rico, near Punta Tocon.

Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department Public Information Officer, Pete Piringer confirmed that Maryland Task Force 1, made up of 35 members, boarded a plane at the Baltimore Washington International Airport and was expected to arrive in the hurricane-damaged area on Tuesday.

Reuters reported that Hurricane Fiona forced 12,500 people from their homes and left 709,000 without power.

Fiona has stripped roads of pavement, caused massive flooding and mudslides, ripped roofs off houses and left millions without drinking water.

Task force team familiar with island response

Hurricane Fiona’s landfall coincides with the 5-year mark since Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 storm that destroyed the island’s power grid and left nearly 3,000 people dead. Infrastructure remains weak and many homes still have makeshift tarp roofs, worsening the impact from Fiona.

I spoke with Piringer, who told me, “Many of our team members are familiar with the island after being deployed there five years ago for Hurricane Maria. We will get the team there, get planning, meet with the operational staff and get to work.”

Task force response

The FEMA Task Forces are equipped and ready to deploy within six hours in various response models. When federal support is anticipated prior to an event such as a hurricane, resources are often pre-positioned along with other federal responders to expedite support following the disaster.

Each Type 1 National Urban Search and Rescue Response System is composed of 70 members specializing in search, rescue, medicine, hazardous materials, logistics and planning, including technical specialists such as physicians, structural engineers and canine search teams. The Task Forces can split into two National Type 3 US&R Task Forces, each with 35 members to conduct around-the-clock search and rescue operations in 12-hour shifts.

Maryland sent a 35-member, Type 3 team to Puerto Rico. The team of specialty rescue technicians, medical professionals, physicians, canines and canine handlers are from Montgomery County Fire and Rescue, Howard County Fire and Rescue and Rescue Services and Prince Georges County Fire Department.

“Montgomery County’s team consists of a couple hundred firefighters, both career and volunteer and people from surrounding jurisdictions,” Piringer said. “FEMA refers to the type of team that was deployed today as a USAR Light team.”

Piringer explained that because the team was only half the size of the Type 1 team, they are considered a regional team and have less equipment, but focus on a specific type of rescues. He added that they are anticipating water rescues, because of the torrential rain.

“The cadre of personnel from many disciplines – search and rescue, canine, live-find dogs, cadaver dogs, physicians, planning, logistics, firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and technical rescue people – is expected to be on the island for 10-14 days,” Piringer said.

He added that those timeframes can be changed depending on the needs, including sending additional personnel if it is deemed necessary.

Piringer added Maryland’s Task Force 1 will be assisted by a team from Nebraska.

The National Urban Search and Rescue Response System was officially established under the authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1989.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is responsible for leading the nation’s efforts to prepare for, protect, mitigate, respond to and recover from impacts of natural disasters and man-made incidents or terrorist events.

The origin of the team dates to the early 1980s, after the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department from Virginia and the Miami-Dade County Fire Department in Florida created search and rescue teams to deal with rescue operations in collapsed buildings. The U.S. State Department and the Office of Foreign Disaster Aid requested these teams to assist in the 1985 Mexico City, the 1990 Luzon and the 1989 Leninakan earthquakes. A few other notable Task Force responses include Hurricane Iniki, Kauai, Hawaii in September 1992; Northridge earthquakes, Los Angeles County, California in January 1994; the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995; Hurricane Opal, Fort Walton Beach Florida in October 1995; Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina in September 1999 and the tragic events of September 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, New York and Pentagon, Washington D.C.

Task force locations

There are 28 Task Forces in the United States, each sponsored by a local agency. In the event of a disaster in the U.S., the nearest three Task Forces will be activated and sent to the site of the disaster. If the situation is large enough, additional teams will be activated.

Their locations are:

  • Phoenix, Arizona, the Phoenix Fire Department
  • Los Angeles, California, the Los Angeles City Fire Department
  • Los Angeles County, California, the Los Angeles County Fire Department
  • Menlo Park, California, the Menlo Park Fire District
  • Oakland, California, the Oakland Fire Department
  • Orange County, California, the Orange County Fire Authority
  • Riverside California, the Riverside Fire Department
  • Sacramento, California, the Sacramento Fire Department
  • Lakewood, Colorado, the West Metro Fire Rescue
  • Miami-Dade County, Florida, the Miami-Date Fire Rescue
  • Miami, Florida, the Miami Fire Department
  • Marion County, Indiana, the Indianapolis Fire Department
  • Montgomery County, Maryland, the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service
  • Beverly County, Missouri, the Boone County Fire Protection District
  • Lincoln, Nebraska, the Lincoln Fire and Rescue Department
  • Clark County, Nevada, the Clark County Fire Department
  • Lakehurst, New Jersey, the New Jersey State Police
  • New York City, the Fire Department City of New York and New York City Police Department
  • Miami Valley, in Ohio
  • Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • Memphis, Tennessee, the Memphis Fire Services
  • College Station, Texas, the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service
  • Salt Lake City, Utah, the Unified Fire Authority
  • Fairfax County, Virginia, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department
  • Virginia Beach, Virginia, the Virginia Beach Fire Department
  • Puget Sound Region, Washington, the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management

Task Force responsibilities

Each Task Force member is a specialist in one of four areas:

  • Search – Locating victims of a disaster by using specialized electronic equipment and tools to search for missing or trapped victims, especially rescue personnel who may be stuck inside of a collapsed structure.
  • Rescue – Extricating a victim from where they are trapped usually involves removing debris from around the victim. This is accomplished by using an extensive array of construction equipment, such as concrete saws, jackhammers and drills; and technical rescue type equipment, such as ropes, lifting airbags, shore systems and hydraulic rescue tools.
  • Technical – Structural specialists provide engineering support for the rescuers by using materials to see where the engineering was done and how. They utilize equipment such as snake-like cameras, fiberscopes, sensitive listening devices, measuring devices, strain gauges, levels, A/V equipment and support equipment for canines, such as kennels, harnesses and sleeping pads.
  • Medical – Providing medical treatment for the team, canines and victims before, during and after rescue by using medical monitoring equipment, splinting equipment and medications. The medical cache includes medicines, IV fluids, blankets, suture sets, airways, ET tubes, defibrillators, burn treatment supplies, bone saws and scalpels.

Additionally, the team is made up of canine rescuers. The four-legged loyal companions are a critical element of the US&R teams. The animals’ keen sense of smell allows them to locate victims who could otherwise go undiscovered. A large majority of the dog handlers on the Task Forces are volunteers.


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Todd Bowman is a nationally registered and flight paramedic with more than 18 years of prehospital experience in Maryland. He attended Hagerstown Community College for his paramedic education and later obtained his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. His experience ranges from rural, metro and aviation-based EMS. He is an experienced EMS manager, public information officer and instructor. Follow him on social media at @_toddbowman.