PHOENIX — The Phoenix Fire Department's 80-person team of highly skilled rescuers crisscrossed the country last summer in a fleet of vehicles with an arsenal of tools, geared up to deal with anything hurricanes Harvey and Irma threw its way.
The team was operating as part of the nation's highly trained search-and-rescue force, deployed to provide assistance after natural disasters.
It spent more time traveling and awaiting orders and assignments than it did actively effecting rescues in the storm-ravaged disaster zones.
All told, the Phoenix team assisted in directly rescuing 17 people, according to department records, a fraction of the thousands of people rescued or assisted by hurricane-response efforts. It was reimbursed $3 million by the U.S. government.
Highly trained, but underused
It wasn't alone in being underused.
Thousands of the country's most highly skilled rescuers who deployed to hurricane-hit regions of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico spent more time traveling and awaiting orders than they did rescuing residents, racking up an anticipated $92 million in reimbursement claims from the cash-strapped Federal Emergency Management Agency, The Arizona Republic has found.
The at-times-underwhelming number of physical rescues, coupled with the costly mobilization of more than 6,000 members of FEMA's National Urban Search and Rescue, program raises questions about how to more efficiently use the vaunted network of versatile, highly skilled first responders.
FEMA National Urban Search and Rescue teams are the national Swiss Army knife of emergency response, able to handle anything from rescues in post-earthquake rubble to dangerous water evacuations. Interviews and records from FEMA and some of the 28 search-and-rescue teams across the country detail their responses to last summer's onslaught of hurricanes.
Colorado's initial 45-member team of specially trained rescuers mobilized to a rural Texas airport, where they loaded evacuees' bags onto awaiting planes. The team was repeatedly reassigned and staged, ending up in Florida where members searched wind-ravaged neighborhoods.
And during its 11-day Texas deployment, records show 80 members from a Los Angeles team tasked with primary searches and rescues encountered more "animal issues" — 64 — than they did evacuations — 56.
Delays in task assignments amid the constantly changing emergencies resulted in many rescuers driving thousands of miles across the country, only to be left to stage at military bases, where they trained and waited to use their skills.
That is, assuming those orders to participate in active rescue efforts came at all.