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.
Falling 'outside the boundary' of usual duties
FEMA officials told The Republic its task force network "saved or assisted nearly 9,000 lives" and "searched" thousands of buildings last summer. But the definitions of what constitute a "search" can vary widely, and the lives-saved tally includes both technical rescues — the original intent of the federally reimbursed search team — and shuttling people in suburban Houston a few hundred feet away to a dry, slightly elevated cul-de-sac.
Some National Urban Search and Rescue teams were exceedingly busy, like Texas task forces that rescued almost 900 people by air and ground and evacuated nearly 12,000 people, according to department records. They appear to have been some of the most active groups in what became one of the biggest mobilizations in the history of the system.
Others, however, were far outpaced in urgent rescues by local first responders, non-governmental rescue groups and volunteers with boats, which frustrated many on the elite teams that had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to help.
What happened during last summer's hurricanes has some calling for the program to be improved in an era of never-ending natural disasters.
Dr. Irwin Redlener heads the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, a group that works to improve the country's ability to prepare and respond to disasters. He lauded the work accomplished by the National Urban Search and Rescue teams and praised their efforts to work and train with local organizations. But he told The Republic many of the tasks assigned to them in post-hurricane areas fell "outside the boundary" of what should be expected for highly skilled rescuers.
Some duties hindered their intended efficiency — at a potentially unwarranted cost, he said.
"They still are shackled with bureaucracy and the rules, who calls whom," Redlener said, speaking both about federal Urban Search and Rescue and the broader emergency management apparatus. "At the end of the day, I think a lot of that needs to be cleaned up."
More disasters, more challenges
An ever-expanding list of expectations for Urban Search and Rescue teams brings with it more gear teams have to carry — and more time to load and transport it. Responders and officials admit that has come at the expense of rapid response and deployment. The teams are versatile while becoming less nimble.
FEMA teams are often staged at military bases or other outposts on the edge of a disaster zone, awaiting orders from incident commanders and higher-ups in the FEMA system. Communication delays, political turmoil or other bureaucratic breakdowns can leave teams in a perpetual state of waiting, even while rescues are needed on the ground.
Non-governmental organizations are increasingly filling the void for immediate response. For example, while task force resources awaited orders or helped facilitate larger plans, the Cajun Navy, an informal network of Good Samaritans with watercraft, mobilized to the hardest-hit areas of the Texas coast and rescued scores of stranded people, almost immediately after the storm hit.
Deploying smaller FEMA response teams is an option some have supported. Others have suggested making the groups more nimble by relying on local fire departments' heavy equipment already close to the disaster zone.
Both alternatives have their critics. Smaller groups disrupt teamwork essential in emergency response, some say, and not all fire departments have the same gear in the quantities needed.
As disasters in the U.S. become more frequent and costlier, both federal and non-governmental rescue groups are vital, officials said. But no consensus exists on how to make the Urban Search and Rescue teams responsive yet able to handle any range of issues.
“These are big global questions, but they often have, certainly, political pieces and social pieces to them," said Ben Ho, a physician with the Oakland Fire Department who helped draft some of the original protocols for the federal search-and-rescue team. Ho has deployed to numerous disasters over the years, from earthquake zones to terrorist attacks to hurricanes — most recently Hurricane Harvey.
"If you wrote it down, it would be difficult to get to the bottom of it and say, 'OK, well, this would be the answer,' " Ho said. "Certainly for rescue folks, it’s a frustration that we deal with all the time. Can we make it better?”
Teams grow after 1989 quake
The program's history offers some insight into how it has evolved.
Select fire departments across the country have trained in heavy rescue since the 1960s, often taking training chapters from the U.S. Department of Defense.
Some teams on the West Coast went through regimented courses about bombed-out buildings and earthquakes, while others in coal country primarily focused on mine rescues. Teams deployed after a series of collapse-focused disasters around the world, part of a loosely organized U.S. response system.
The event that spurred the development of a highly technical search-and-rescue system was born out of a highly viewed disaster in 1989.
With millions watching the World Series between the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants, a magnitude-6.9 earthquake rattled Loma Prieta and the Bay Area of Northern California. Soon after, President George H.W. Bush called for the creation of a more regimented national program that could respond to emergencies involving collapsed buildings with people trapped in rubble.
FEMA, historically a recovery agency, would house the program, making it a response organization.
Ho, a physician trained in heavy rescue, was on the team that crafted the benchmark plans. The goal was to mobilize 50 rescuers and pallets of gear anywhere within hours of emergency. The teams would be nimble, relatively speaking, and effective in dynamic rescues, Ho told The Republic.
Before long the team was responding to assist local first responders in hurricane-swept Hawaii and on the Hurricane Andrew-battered coast of Florida. The Oklahoma City federal courthouse bombing in 1995 made terrorist attacks part of the playbook for a once-earthquake-minded response team.
With more expectations disaster after disaster, "mission creep" ensued.
“Here was a sudden realization that, for all of the training, we had done and all of the protocols that we had written about earthquakes, this is what we’re going to," Ho said. "In many ways, it changed the whole view of the country, the government and FEMA about what our mission was. It changed everything.”
In the years since, FEMA's Urban Search and Rescue teams have grown in size and scale.
Swift-water training has been bolstered, and the toolbox has gotten larger, with FEMA officials likening the deployment of massive search-and-rescue teams to the positioning of fire stations across a city.
Some will be busier than others. But it's better to have them, just in case.
Some rescuers admit being frustrated. Non-governmental rescue organizations are increasingly filling an immediate response void while lumbering FEMA response teams mobilize to disasters — many of them scenes that historically were outside the purview of the federal rescue entity.
While task force resources awaited orders or helped facilitate larger plans, Global Disaster Immediate Response Team, a volunteer group of trained ex-military responders, led the evacuation of dozens of frail residents at a flooded Port Arthur, Texas, nursing home.
And Team Rubicon, with a volunteer base of 70,000 veterans and first responders, deployed to handle emergency needs in hurricane-hit communities, said David Burke, vice president of programs and field operations for the group. While urban search and rescue isn't one of their core functions, it sometimes becomes part of it.
"If we can ensure the safety of our volunteers and serve communities impacted by disaster, we will do our best to meet that need," he told The Republic. "We aim to help disaster-stricken communities return to normalcy as soon as possible."
'These disasters are moving targets'
FEMA has set aside $92 million to reimburse each of the task forces responding to hurricanes last year. Those disasters alone caused an estimated $370 billion in damages and around 250 deaths on U.S. lands, making it by far the costliest U.S. hurricane season on record.
In October testimony to Congress, FEMA administrator Brock Long warned that disasters in the U.S. are becoming more frequent and costlier. From 1995 through 2004, the White House approved 598 disaster declarations with a cost of almost $37 billion in FEMA assistance. From 2005 to 2014, that number jumped to 808 disasters at a cost of nearly $107 billion, he said.
"This unprecedented hurricane season has truly tested us as a nation and tested many of our assumptions about what works in disaster response and recovery," Long said. " … The lessons that we are learning from the response and recovery operations … will transform the field of emergency management forever."
Similarly, Redlener, with the disaster preparedness center, agreed that changes will be necessary in an era of seemingly endless disasters requiring immediate and longer-term responses.
"You don't need some highly trained, hard-core search-and-rescue person to take a rowboat out and rescue someone on a porch," Redlener said. "I don't think that's appropriate."
FEMA officials are undertaking after-action reviews and debriefings where they will look at ways to streamline operations and be more effective. Those conversations are ongoing, though it remains unclear what, if anything needs to, or could, change.
Christopher Boyer, executive director of the National Association for Search and Rescue, a group that trains responders across the country, said reflection can be beneficial.
The system often races from disaster to disaster, but one-size-fits-all plans can be difficult to meet in reality, he said.
"I think that, ultimately, it comes down to the fact that all these disasters are moving targets. So the solutions are moving targets,” Boyer said. “You just don’t know what the next disaster is.”
About the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Program
• Task forces: 28.
• Designed for structure collapse and live search-and-rescue operations.
• 2017 operating budget: $35 million.
• Agencies funded by FEMA cooperative agreement ($1.1 million annually).
• Agencies invoice FEMA for deployment reimbursement after a disaster.
• Harvey, Irma and Maria obligated reimbursement amount: $92 million.
• All 28 task forces deployed resources for Hurricane Harvey, including 6,450 members from Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.
• 22 task forces deployed resources for Hurricane Irma, including 1,590 members from Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington.
• 12 task forces deployed resources for Hurricane Maria, including 835 members from California, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Virginia.
Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency
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