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Virginia Task Force 1 – the International Search and Rescue Team, Fairfax County (Virginia), Fire and Rescue Department

No continent or community is immune to disasters, but having the right people to engage in the arduous task of search and rescue operations in the worst of conditions is a level unto itself. That is exactly where you should expect to find Virginia Task Force 1, the International Search and Rescue Team of the Fairfax County (Virginia) Fire and Rescue Department.

Located and in the shadow of the nation’s Capitol and the suburbs of Northern Virginia, this 25-year-old elite unit has the distinction of being a locally established unit with an internationally recognized worldwide reach.

Comprised entirely of 200 specially trained members (e.g., physicians, paramedics, canine handlers, communications personnel, heavy rigging specialists, structural engineers, etc.) of Fairfax County’s Fire and Rescue Department, Virginia Task Force 1 has been on the front lines of just about every major disaster, (man-made and terrorism) for its nearly three decades of operation. It is even further distinguished as being one of 28 domestic resources qualified by DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist with large-scale homeland security operations, and one of two resources utilized by Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for international disaster. In short, when there is a really bad day, they get called.

For example:

When calls have come in from places such as Oklahoma City following Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995; Nairobi, Kenya, following the al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. Embassy in 1998; or even neighboring Arlington, Va., following the attack on the Pentagon of Sept. 11, 2001, Virginia Task Force 1 was there to answer them.

Fairfax Co. personnel search Haiti rubble

Members of Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue, Fairfax, Va., search the rubble of Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for survivors during Operation Unified Response Jan. 20, 2010. Hotel Montana was destroyed by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 12, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Prentice Colter

When widespread flood waters have overtaken Midwestern U.S. communities, including Fargo, N.D., as well as remote destinations such as Maputo, Mozambique, the Czech Republic, and others, Virginia Task Force 1 has been there, working with local and regional disaster response units to save lives.

The same has proven true during hurricane operations. U.S. cities such as Atlanta, Ga., Jacksonville, Fla., Alexandria, La., and the U.S. Gulf Coast during the epic 2005 hurricane season (e.g., Katrina, Rita, Wilma) found Virginia Task Force 1 lending a hand. Even remote countries such as Indonesia and Burma, overrun by deadly cyclones and tsunamis, have found Virginia Task Force 1 has been there to lend a hand.

The same can be said when calls have come in from Mexico, Armenia, Turkey, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Haiti, and even a less than U.S.-friendly Iran seeking assistance following catastrophic earthquakes: Virginia Task Force 1 has answered them without question.

There has never been a geo-political discriminator that has prevented Task Force 1 from serving a community need. If someone calls for their help, it’s given. Thanks to support from U.S. military airlifts out of Andrews Air Force Base in nearby Maryland that ferry their equipment and personnel wherever it needs to go, Virginia Task Force 1 has literally been able to reach some of their calls within a dozen or so hours from when they have first been received.

Fairfax County urban rescue team in Haiti

Members of the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team, from Fairfax, Va., perform a rescue at Port-au-Prince University in Haiti Jan. 16, 2010. The all-volunteer service partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development and multinational relief agencies to support the massive relief efforts needed in the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti. DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joshua Lee Kelsey, U.S. Navy

While Task Force 1 may be called upon without warning, years of experience are necessary to qualify for a place within the unit.  Before anyone can join the unit, they have to serve five to seven years as part of the Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department and have the physical/mental endurance and professional service record to show they can handle the demands that come not just in serving during large-scale disasters but in high-pressure and culturally sensitive environments.

Upon becoming part of the Task Force, all of its members continue to train monthly to maintain and perfect their skills, often in non-compensated training, after normal work hours. They additionally conduct two “Full Team” exercises – one a 72-hour field exercise and the other in the classroom – to be sure each unit is fully prepared for the call that could come anytime and send them literally anywhere. This is all on top of their regular day-to-day assignments, responding to the daily 9-1-1 calls about house fires, chest pains, and other incidents that cause one of their emergency vehicles to leave the fire station to serve someone in need.

It is definitely a source of pride for the people of Northern Virginia to have such an elite team at the ready for the world to access, but given the fact that financial support is provided by FEMA and USAID, Virginia’s citizens also don’t have to pay for it. Each of Virginia Task Force 1’s deployments are paid for out of these resources and other monies specifically dedicated to such disaster operations.

While the U.S. Navy may have coined the phrase, “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure” to attract prospective recruits to its mission, at the Task Force those words probably best describe what they have done for 25 years. Between traveling in 1988 to the then-Soviet Union to aid earthquake search and rescue efforts in Armenia to their work amid the devastation found in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, in early 2010, the Task Force’s members have traveled millions of miles saving lives as “Ambassadors of Compassion.” Their years of training and experience have put them in a class that few others could imagine, let alone equal, and to the people they have responded to, they have made a world of difference.


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

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-906">

    This team is on the ground in Japan! I admire their bravery, wish for them a safe return and success no matter how small.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-924">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    @The Fonz: They have their work cut out for them, but I agree with you on all. Hopes and prayers for success and their safe return, and especially for the people of Japan.