Hometown Heroes

Andy Hubert got the call on Dec. 7, 1988, Pearl Harbor Day. It was another disaster, however, that would imprint the day in his memory. The Fairfax County, Va., fire and rescue specialist was about to be sent halfway around the world to the then-Soviet republic of Armenia. A devastating earthquake had crippled the state. Tens of thousands were presumed dead and thousands more were believed to be buried alive in rubble.

The call was not entirely out of the blue. The Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) had been working with fire departments in Fairfax and Florida's Dade County to establish an international crisis response team for just such events. A team of fire and rescue specialists was quickly assembled from the Fairfax and Metro-Dade departments when Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev requested aid for Armenia four days after the disaster.

Hubert and the others tapped for duty quickly gathered together gear and equipment available for the mission and within hours were flying out of Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on a military transport plane. Bad weather and earthquake damage forced the team to land in Russia and take a six-hour bus ride through the Caucasus Mountains in a blizzard to the earthquake's epicenter in Armenia. The team was briefed en route on what to expect, but the situation they found was overwhelming.

The local government and facilities had collapsed, leaving a vacuum of authority for managing the crisis. Survivors who had escaped the destruction were left without food or shelter. Some who survived the earthquake did not survive the eight-hour drive over snow-covered mountain roads to the nearest hospital where they were taken for treatment by anyone able to drive them there. The devastation was phenomenal.

"By the time we got there it was five days after the earthquake," Hubert says. "We arrived in the dead of winter with summer supplies. We had auto-extraction equipment when we needed to take apart buildings."

After working their way through four floors of collapsed concrete for eight hours, the team pulled a 60-year-old woman out alive. Soon after, they rescued a 16-year old girl trapped in the rubble. In the eight days of round-the-clock work that followed the team's arrival in Armenia, those would be the only survivors pulled from the wreckage.

"You really can't imagine something like that," says Kent Watts, another Fairfax firefighter. "Our team was the first help to arrive for some of the people there. You just can't imagine what they went through."

OFDA isn't the only federal agency to tap the expertise of the Fairfax and Metro-Dade fire departments. They are among 26 departments nationwide that participate in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's national urban search and rescue response system. All the members of the OFDA team work for FEMA as well. Since the earthquake in Armenia, the firefighters have responded to a 1992 earthquake in the Philippines, the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and most recently to an international earthquake response exercise in Iceland.

Immediately after the Armenian earthquake, OFDA officials set out to formalize the crisis response team and improve its capabilities. New equipment and supplies were purchased to ensure the team could deploy within six hours and operate independently after arrival in country for at least 72 hours, in both cold and hot climes.

Today, 40,000 pounds of equipment and supplies stand ready at Fire Station 18 in a Northern Virginia suburb. The equipment is packed in color-coded trunks for easy identification and stacked on pallets; a forklift stands nearby. Equipment that withstands heat and cold is already loaded on a tractor trailer for shipment.

Getting to a disaster as quickly as possible is critical to the success of a search and rescue operation, says Lt. Michael Regan, a search team manager. "The first day after an earthquake, for example, you can usually make a lot of rescues. Depending on the weather and the severity of the disaster, the number of survivors drops significantly every day after. Our objective is to get there as early as possible and work around the clock for as long as we can," until exhaustion forces the team to work in shifts.

Since the Armenian earthquake the team has acquired better equipment for breaking through concrete and improved listening devices and fiber-optic cameras for finding trapped survivors. Special equipment not normally used by the department is purchased by OFDA and FEMA. The agencies also reimburse the department for any costs incurred as a result of the relationship, including overtime pay and benefits, says Deputy Chief Jim Strickland.

Both the OFDA team and the 26 FEMA task forces include search and rescue experts, canine handlers, medical personnel and engineers. The firefighters bring more than search and rescue capability to the teams, however. Fairfax firefighter Tom Griffin attended a military loadmaster course in order to be able to better move and handle the unit's equipment. Another firefighter has found his talent for hot-wiring cars is useful in emergency situations.

"A lot of people have carpentry skills, heavy equipment skills and other expertise that is a real benefit," Griffin says.

While the members of the fire department work together and train together daily, the medical personnel, canine handlers and engineers are often called up only for emergencies. Regular training with these non-fire department members and with the OFDA members of the Metro-Dade department is critical, says Capt. Jerry Roussillon, a rescue team manager and commander of Fire Station 18.

For instance, structural engineers initially were reluctant to assist search and rescue teams going into dangerous situations. "We'd ask what's the safest way to get into this building and they'd say, 'You can't go in there. It's not safe.' We'd say, 'No. You don't understand. We're going in there, with or without your help. Tell us how to do it in the safest way possible,' " he says.

"After working with us for a while, they understood what our needs were, and we work together well now," Roussillon says.

Dangerous Work

The work is hazardous and tough, physically, mentally and emotionally. For starters, the rescuers must be able to load and unload their 40,000 pounds of equipment by hand, so they must be in peak physical condition. "Everyone has to be able to carry their own weight," says Hubert, "otherwise they become a drain on the rest of the team, and we can't afford that." During crisis deployments each team member receives a physical prior to departure and twice a day throughout the deployment. Even minor health problems could turn debilitating.

The rescuers also must learn to cope with sights, sounds and smells unimaginable to most people. They deal with hysterical survivors, who may not speak English. They must be able to cope with the inevitable frustration of reaching their own physical limits and the personal anguish they experience in the face of extreme tragedy. In Oklahoma City, the tragedy hit home especially hard when they recovered the body of a fellow firefighter's sister.

While psychological help is available for the asking, team members say they find the most support in each other. "We tend to lean on one another," says Roussillon.

"We're the only ones who really understand what we do and what we go through. Some people cry, and that's an appropriate response at a given time. Some people use humor. That too is an appropriate response at a given time."

There are physical hazards as well, beyond the obvious dangers of working in unstable structures. Carbon monoxide and toxic air pollution are standard hazards. One Fairfax firefighter recently underwent surgery to remove pockets of concrete that had formed in his sinuses-the result of breathing too much concrete dust.

Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, there is a long waiting list to join FEMA and OFDA in Fairfax.

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