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After Deployment: A Conversation with Virginia Task Force 1 About Their Time in Japan – Part 1

Answering the call

Virginia Task Force 1 has seen its share of bad days. As one of the world’s elite international search and rescue teams, the unique squadron of men and women from the Fairfax County (Virginia) Fire and Rescue Department has been around the world answering the calls of help in the worst of conditions. From floods, terrorism strikes, and tsunamis to earthquakes, there are few hazardous environments that they have not deployed into, but a new more challenging chapter in their history unfolded in March 2011.

On March 11, the strongest recorded earthquake (9.0 magnitude) in Japan’s history occurred. Striking the northern portion of island nation it unleashed not only significant physical destruction to one of the most earthquake prepared countries on the planet but an unprecedented tsunami that brought even more death and destruction would sweep inland killing thousands and literally wiping away port facilities, fishing villages as well as whole cities. The destruction could only be comprehended in Biblical proportions given the apocalyptic nature of it.

If the double whammy of an unprecedented earthquake and tsunami did not make the situation bad enough, a third strike in the form of an escalating nuclear emergency at the Fukushima nuclear power plant began to unfold.

Despite these threats and conditions, there was no hesitancy by Virginia Task Force 1 or the other international search and rescue teams in going to Japan to offer what assistance they could.

Arriving in Japan almost a day and a half after the first earthquake violently shook the island nation from its normal, everyday life, Virginia Task Force 1 would deploy into the northern reaches of the country. Taking with them all of the equipment that they would need to extract survivors from the water-logged rubble, the Task Force members would encounter situations that they had never experienced before. Unlike some of its most recent deployments to places like Haiti, China, and even the U.S. Gulf Coast following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, there would be no trapped survivors to extract from debris strewn areas. There would only be recovery operations, building reinforcement actions, and other support efforts to provide assistance to Japanese rescue authorities. A week after they arrived in Japan, they would make a somber trek home on March 19 to northern Virginia to anxious and waiting families and colleagues as well as the community of Fairfax County that proudly calls this elite unit its own.

On March 25, Defense Media Network senior homeland security writer Rich Cooper sat down with Capt. Joe Knerr, a 17-year firefighter and one of two Task Force Leaders of Virginia Task Force 1, and Lt. Rodney Vaughan, a 16-year fireman and senior member of the elite unit at Fire Station 18 in Falls Church, Va., to reflect on their deployment to Japan, the experiences of the disaster, and the lessons learned that they take away from this unprecedented disaster.

In a five-part series, the two veteran international rescuers, each with over a decade of experience, share their firsthand observations and experiences of one of the world’s most epic disasters. An edited transcript of their observations will tell their story and provide details not previously known or appreciated by the worldwide public that they serve at a moment’s notice.

Rich Cooper: When did you first hear about Japan and the earthquake?

Capt. Joe Knerr: Actually, about 20 minutes after it happened. I was at home and most of us on the Task Force get notifications through our pagers or cell phones telling us of earthquakes of a certain magnitude.

Are these from news services or is this something that comes from U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)?

The USGS sends out the alerts and you can set it up so they will come to your pager. Most normal people don’t track alerts like that but you can set it up so the earthquakes over 5.0 or 6.0 or whatever [scale] can come to your phones. So, most of us [Virginia Task Force 1] have that because obviously, if it’s over 6, it’s usually something of significance.

When you saw that notification on your pager and you saw that the initial numbers were 8.9 …

Actually, it came in as 7.-something and then [it] went up. So initially, I’ll be quite frank, the first one I saw was 7.8 and you just look at it, and then you look at where it is at: Japan. They are well-developed; they’re earthquake resistant to a certain degree, [they have] very well-built structures … That number is not as significant as a 7.8 would be in Haiti or Taiwan or someplace else.

But when you saw these numbers, did you think you were going to end up going?

Not initially. Once again, [their] buildings are very well built, even with the 8.8 much more significant, but once again, the buildings are well built and they have response capabilities. Also we have to look at how long it is going to take us to get there. That’s usually about 24 hours on average, so that’s a day. So, we already have a day delay built in from the time they say “Go,” to the time we show up would be 24 hours. You have to weigh that in and then you also look at the response capabilities within their region. Australia is there, New Zealand is there with response capabilities.

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...