Exporting USAR Expertise: California firefighters respond to Japan

By Jane Jerrard
By now, most of you know that U.S. firefighters rushed to Japan to help with search and rescue efforts following the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

A total of seventy-four CA-TF2 members were deployed to Japan following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. All photos courtesy USAID

The team performed search operations for three days in the port city of Ofunato.

The devastation surrounds the team.

According to Patrick Rohaley, a team leader on CA-TF2, the team had plenty of searching to do, but due to the high water levels, they did not find any survivable void spaces.

CA-TF2 gathers together during their search operations in Japan.

One challenge faced by the team: cold weather. There were times when they worked in the snow and temperatures were in the teens.

But who were they and what did they do?
The simple answer is that there are two fire departments in the United States that provide specially trained teams to help with urban search and rescue (USAR) efforts in international disasters. One is the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, home to Virginia Task Force 1 (VA-TF1), and the other is the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s (LACoFD) California Task Force 2 (CA-TF2). Both are deployed to help with international disasters in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance USAID/OFDA).

Members of the task forces are regular department personnel, but with specialized skills and responsibilities. “Collectively, we spend thousands of man hours each year on cache maintenance, personnel preparation, training and more,” explains Patrick Rohaley, a battalion chief with the LACoFD and a team leader on CA-TF2. “We spend just a handful of days a year overseas.”

Here’s a detailed look at CA-TF’s deployment to Japan just days after the disaster.

A Unique Recovery Operation
On March 11, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale struck off the north coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami that caused severe damage.

Seventy-four CA-TF2 members were deployed, including LACoFD firefighters, paramedics, hazmat technicians, and communications and logistics specialists, as well as non-LACoFD emergency department physicians and structural engineers. The group deployed to Misawa, Japan, where they were joined by members of VA-TF1, along with Japanese and international search and rescue teams, to search for live victims in the cities of Ofunato and Kamaishi in the Iwate prefecture.

What CA-TF2 found was quite different than their previous earthquake recovery operations, Rohaley says. “The tsunami had an extremely destructive impact on the community. It was not unlike what we found in certain areas after Katrina, such as the ninth ward [in New Orleans]. There, the storm surge had moved homes off their foundations and stacked houses on top of each other.”

The LACoFD group worked three days on search and recovery operations. “This short duration was due in part to the lack of viable search opportunities due to the disaster setting having been a tsunami,” Rohaley explains. “We had plenty of searching to do, but due to the high water levels, we did not find any survivable void spaces.” Despite the short duration of their search, Rohaley states, “I believe we did complete our objectives. At the request of the local government, we were there to conduct search and rescue and to assist in recovery.”

Challenges & Concerns
When a task force is deployed to a disaster area, there are always difficulties in logistics. The Japan trip, however, had “no significant coordination problems” according to Rohaley. He explains, “As usual, transportation of personnel and equipment to an international destination—and finding available aircraft of sufficient size—was difficult. And once we arrived at Misawa Air Force Base, ground transportation was of concern. They have regulations that would have negatively impacted our travel, but this was negotiated through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so our vehicles were able to transport without restrictions.”

Other challenges the task force faced in Japan included housing, resources and cold weather. Rohaley says, “We established our base of operations in an elementary school, which was shared by three teams. Resources, including fresh water, were limited. And cold weather was an issue. There were times we were working in snow, and temperatures were in the teens. Our cold-weather gear was sufficient; however, conditions did test it to its limits.”

One problem the group dodged was radiation exposure from the compromised Fukushima power plant. They were working approximately 120 kilometers north of the plant, and Rohaley says, “We were continually monitored for radiation exposure, from the time we left until we returned. Our hazmat team and others monitored us. Throughout the deployment, we never experienced radiation levels higher than background levels.”

The 74 members of CA-TF2 were gone a total of nine days to complete their search and recovery mission in Japan. Once home, they immediately began preparing for their next deployment.

Jane Jerard lives in Chicago and writes frequently for FireRescue magazine.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE

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