Conducting an interview in an active firehouse near the Capital Beltway in suburban Washington, D.C., with two senior, on-duty firefighters is a lot like being in the middle of a busy pizza shop on a Friday night. Phones are ringing, loudspeakers are blaring information, and people are constantly on the move, going in and out of the area. Instead of people covered in flour, dough, and sauce, in a fire station the people on the move are wearing nearly 30 pounds of equipment and the “deliveries” going out the door come courtesy of big, red, box-shaped trucks with sirens and flashing lights.
There is an ebb and flow to the day of any firefighter or EMT (emergency medical technician). The calls into the station are a constant, and the need to process the minuscule amount of information given by 911 operators so they can prepare and adequately respond to the needs of the person(s) requiring emergency assistance is a marvel to watch. You can literally be having a conversation about what they were doing to prepare to go to Japan to respond to one of the world’s epic disasters when a buzzer goes off and out the door they go, jumping on to a truck headed out to attend to a car vs. motorcycle accident.
Sitting in an almost empty firehouse hearing the chatter over the radios about all of the other calls going on around the area makes you appreciate the unpredictability of what they walk into day in and day out. No one call is the same as another. The same holds true for disasters. Despite the searing memories and experiences of your last major deployment (Haiti), the next one you go to is going to be completely different, and how you prepare for it, what you take and what you learn is going to be dramatically different as well.
As the conversation continues with Capt. Joe Knerr, one of two Task Force Leaders of Virginia Task Force 1, and Lt. Rodney Vaughan, another senior member of the elite team from the Fairfax County, Va., Fire and Rescue Department at Fire Station 18 in Falls Church, Va., they share with Defense Media Network’s senior homeland security writer Rich Cooper their trip over to Japan, what they encountered when they deployed to the disaster areas, and some of what they saw.
Rich Cooper: Once you got the request to go to Japan, was there anything that the Japanese authorities asked you to bring with you as you packed up to go there?
Lt. Vaughan: No. The only thing that was unique to this deployment was it was the first time we had ever deployed with some of our swift water boats and swift water assets.
And this was all before you realized you’ve got a situation with the nuclear reactor.
Capt. Knerr: Oh! Absolutely. That [the nuclear emergency] still didn’t affect our response but it was still mainly a two-pronged event. Yes, there’s an earthquake but the tsunami damage was probably more significant.
Now, when you get the call to go, what happens next? What starts to happen for you guys and how quickly are you pulling all of the stuff together to get out of here, to get to Japan. I assume to you left via Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland.
Capt. Knerr: Well actually, it’s two-pronged: There’s a personal preparedness side of it. What are we doing personally for each person depending on where they live? We have people who live three hours away. So when they see something significant like this, they start heading in before we even get the call. We have others that live close by, and you are arranging to run out the door. So, quite frankly, we are checking with the real bosses, the wives, and others, to make sure we are good to go.
You mean the real homeland security.
Lt. Vaughan: Absolutely. They are the ones that deal with everything when we get to run out the door. You know, then internally, it is a matter of notifying the team that we are activated and our procedure is pretty clear. Everybody comes.
So how long from when you are activated and your team does all of that? How soon are you guys at the airport?
Capt. Knerr: We are supposed to be able to be at the airport within six hours. Typically we are well ahead of any arranged transport that’s available to us, because we have to contract that out. When you are moving 60,000 pounds of equipment and 74 to 80 people, you know, it takes a little bit to arrange that. We actually go to Dover [Air Force Base in Delaware]. We used to go to Andrews but now we typically go to Dover.
This time, we actually sent our equipment to Andrews, which was a change from where we have an agreement. Dover is actually able to support us more. They have more capability there at the airport, if we need it to load planes and such, to get us out the door. Andrews is more of a receiving facility and does not have as robust a capability, but the military has assets available to us.
So from where did your personnel take off ?
Capt. Knerr: We took off out of Dulles on chartered aircraft to Japan.
Lt. Vaughan: Yeah … we had a couple of stops along the way though.
That was my next question: What were the stops along the way and how long did it take you to get there?
Capt. Knerr: We left within 24 hours of the quake and were in the air at 2:00 a.m. Essentially, 24 hours after the quake, which is actually fast for us.
So did the Transportation Security Administration make you take your shoes off?
Capt. Knerr: No, actually getting out was no big deal. [Laughs] Coming home was a different story.
Lt. Vaughan: That’s all another story.
Capt. Knerr: Going out the door wasn’t an issue, especially with our equipment cache going military, so we have a lot less hoops to jump through. As far as getting on the plane at Dulles, there were no issues. We just walked on to the plane. We had to make sure that we didn’t have our knives, some of the normal stuff, but we didn’t have to take our boots off or anything. We just walked on[to] the plane.
So, how many stops did you guys make along the way? Where did you stop?
Capt. Knerr: We stopped at Los Angeles to pick up the L.A. contingent, the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Search and Rescue Team.
So you all went over together?
Capt. Knerr: Yes we all went over together. From there, we went to Anchorage for a refueling stop. From there we went right to Misawa Air Force Base [U.S. Air Force facility].
So how many hours did it take you to get there?
Capt. Knerr: It was about 24 hours.
Lt. Vaughan: Altogether it was 24 hours lumped together because it is a 4 and a half hour flight to L.A. roughly, and 6 hours to Anchorage.
Capt. Knerr: [Looking at Lt. Vaughan] We landed there at about 4 or 5, their time? Is that right? Or 6?
Cooper: A.M. or P.M.?
Capt. Knerr: [Laughing with Lt. Vaughan] p.m. That’s what I am trying to think. They were 14 hours ahead at that point. So roughly another 24 hours.
Lt. Vaughan: It would have been the afternoon.
So you basically … the earthquake occurs on a Friday. You guys arrive essentially on Sunday.
Capt. Knerr: Correct. Sunday.
OK, you’re on the flight over. You’ve got the L.A. team and you’ve got Virginia Task Force 1 all on the same flight. Are you guys getting any type of situational awareness briefs there, or just asking you guys to get as much sleep as you possibly can on a plane to rest up for what is going be a pretty tough haul?
Capt. Knerr: On the plane we get limited information because we don’t have contact with anybody. When we land is when we get our initial briefs and that’s just making contact with our home base as well as the USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] representatives who are making contact with their resources. Ultimately that early in any natural disaster, solid, accurate information is hard to come by. It doesn’t matter where it is at.