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After Deployment: A Conversation with Virginia Task Force 1 About Their Time in Japan – Part 3

Radiation concerns and tsunami survivability

In Part 3 of the conversation 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 international search and rescue team from Fairfax County’s (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department, they share with Defense Media Network senior homeland security writer Rich Cooper the operating conditions in which their team operated in Ofunato, Japan; what they knew about the leaking radiation coming from Fukushima nuclear power plant; what concerns they had about radiation exposure; and the survivability conditions of the area following the earthquake and tsunami.

Rich Cooper: So you guys are sleeping in an elementary school gymnasium and you’ve got your location from where you are going to start your basic operations. Everywhere you look there is ruin. Where do you begin?

Capt. Joe Knerr: It begins with talking to the locals. Any emergency requires locals.

Were there any locals around to talk to?

Lt. Rodney Vaughan: Oh, absolutely. With the elevation and terrain in this area – there were areas that were completely wiped clean and then, right across the street, it’s business as usual. It was just based on terrain. If you happened to be in the right spot, then your house and everything was not affected, and so the line of demarcation or destruction was very distinct where we were.

But it all starts with talking to first responders, and the families that are down there, because once again, we are down there to help them, and the last thing that we want to do – it’s taken us 48 hours to get in the theater, we don’t want to waste time duplicating efforts – so you make contact with them and say: “We are here to help, what do you need?”

And then based on what their needs are, they tell us, “We need you to look at this area.”

OK. Based on that area, we go with our search team managers, our rescue squad officers, and go, [drawing with his hand] “Hey we have a box [an area] this big.”

It’s mostly tsunami damage and we can get a quick view. It’s rubble piles and then we come up with the search plan for how to cover it.

As you are getting that from the local folks, all of us in the United States are seeing on the other side of the world the news coverage regarding the nuclear reactor. We’re starting to hear about explosions that have occurred at a couple of different portions of the plant. Were you aware of any of that? Was any of that communicated to you at all as to what was happening?

Lt. Vaughan: We had an awareness of it but we didn’t have an accurate account of, and I just don’t know if there was an accurate account of it. We had quite a bit of media embedded between Los Angeles and ourselves and the U.K. team, so a lot of our information actually came from them and from our home operations centers that were back home [in Virginia]. But once again, they were feeding off the media. So, the information was coming out of there depending on which news source you listened to, we were all at death’s door and about to be glowing, so there’s nothing to worry about.

So, we didn’t have accurate information, but what we did have was knowledge that we were at least about 120 nautical miles away. So even in a worst-case situation, we had the distance.

The typical response to radiation is time, distance, and shielding. Alright, distance we have covered. Time we have covered, because the fact is if the cloud, worst-case scenario, was sort of coming our way, we had sensors to monitor; we can evacuate and start heading away from it.

But the other thing we had was the winds; the trade winds for the Japanese islands.  Where we were at, they were [blowing] from west to east, so they blew the radiation, the clouds, mostly out to sea.

We also monitored every day the weather reports and the winds were coming from the north, northwest, heading south, southeast, which was away from us. We couldn’t have had it any better.

However, can I say that was it not our minds? Absolutely it was on our minds, because …

Was this a distraction to you guys?

Capt. Knerr: No, not to the personnel in the field, I think … [smiling and motioning to Lt. Vaughan] He can speak for them but for me it’s a concern, because we, as team leadership … the families trust us with their loved ones. We go out with 74 people; they expect us to bring 74 people back and that has nothing to do with radiation. It has everything to do with any hazard we encounter, whether it’s a collapsed structure or whether it’s a tsunami, another tsunami warning, or a radiation cloud. So from team leadership, the task force leaders, yeah, we are monitoring this [radiation situation] because we want to make sure that we are not leading these guys into harm’s way. But for these guys … [again motioning to Lt. Vaughan], I can’t say that it was a distraction. Rodney can tell you more.

Lt. Vaughan: No, it wasn’t a distraction. With the hazardous materials specialists we have on the team and their monitoring devices and everything they carry with them, we kept daily monitoring constantly. We also kept daily logs of the amount of radiation and it was fairly insignificant in the areas that we were in. In fact, it was normal doses that you would get in any major city.

Capt. Knerr: I have the exact same meter that we used there [in Japan], on our engine [pointing to the fire truck in the bay area of the fire house]. We carry them on our front line engines here. I was just looking at it on this last call and it was actually higher in the front of that engine that it was where we were at.

Here’s the thing … we encounter different hazards regardless of the situation. It could be the nuclear power plant; it could be an oil refinery in Turkey; it could be a chemical release of some sort, somewhere else. We bring specialists with us so we can identify the issue and protect ourselves from it.

Debris, Ofunato

Debris chokes a canal in Ofunato. U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Matthew M. Bradley

Because here is the other thing: If somebody is within that plume or zone, and they have been exposed to dangerous levels, by the time we get there, the chances of survival for them are probably very limited at best. So we have to weigh what kind of operations we engage in.

We are specialized in saving people from heavy reinforced concrete buildings. For this mission, we added a water component because we knew a tsunami hit. We have a HAZMAT component that’s specific to defensive operations, meaning we can identify it, we can isolate it, but we aren’t capable to truly work in it.

So it’s knowing our concept of operations and what we can and can’t do, and ensuring that we make everyone aware of that. On the team [Virginia Task Force 1], we train in it, but when we arrive in theater, in country, to establish expectations with the affected population, there are things we can and can’t do.

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