An elite group of Missourians is performing activities that are now being shown all over cable TV and over the air news programs. The Missouri Task Force One from Columbia is in Houston for the specific purpose of executing water rescues and resident evacuations resulting from Hurricane Harvey.
As of Monday evening, the squad reported it’s work with the Houston Fire Department resulted in 300 people being rescued or evacuated and numerous pets being saved.
The Boone County Fire Protection District is the sponsoring agency of the Task Force, which is owned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Only 28 of the elite operations exist in the country, being strategically located in different regions.
Gale Blomenkamp with the Boone County District says 49 members of the Task Force have been deployed specifically to address current needs in southeast Texas. “There’s an embedded swift water rescue component that includes swift water rescue technicians, boat operators, and then we also send six boats as well as an additional cache of water rescue equipment,” said Blomenkamp.
The Task Force is designed to assist the local emergency agencies facing a disaster response. The Missouri unit was originally sent to Rockport, Texas northeast of Corpus Christi, where it conducted searches and welfare checks on residences with local law enforcement.
It was then moved to Katy, a far western suburb of Houston, where it assisted with water rescues before finally being assigned to relief efforts within Houston city limits.
Blomenkamp says even though the Task force is based in Columbia, its members come from all over the state. “We have members on this deployment from the Joplin area, from Cape Girardeau, from Springfield, the St. Louis area, the Kansas City area and all those areas in between.”
More than 100,000 pounds of equipment was sent to southeast Texas along with staff members. The Task Force was last used for the same type of disaster in October 2016 after Hurricane Matthew brushed past the coast of North and South Carolina.
The typical convoy of 11 to 12 vehicles deployed, Blomenkamp says, would be hard not to notice traveling down a highway . “It would be very obvious that this group is traveling together, not sure what they are, but yes they’re traveling together, and they’re headed in a direction that most people are coming away from.”
The Task Force handles urban search and rescue operations which include the location, extrication, and initial medical stabilization of individuals. It’s set up to send up to 80 people to a destination at any given time, and as such, is staffed three deep at every position. In all, 210 people fulfill 18 different job functions ranging from canine search specialist to physicians to rescue specialists and heavy equipment operators.
The team performs operations dealing with a wide range of circumstances, including structural collapses, floods and wide area searches. Blomenkamp notes it was involved with federal efforts following the tragic 2003 event when a NASA space shuttle broke up as it returned to Earth, killing the seven astronauts on board.
“One of the deployments that Missouri Task Force One went on was the space shuttle Columbia disaster over the state of Texas, where we did wide area searches for debris fields.”
According to the Boone County Fire Protection District web site, the Task Force has more than 17,000 separate equipment items that are maintained in inventory and sent when the Task Force is deployed. Its total equipment cache weight is “in excess of 40,000 pounds that is designed to be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours”.
Blomenkamp contends there are very few, if any, emergency situations the Task Force couldn’t handle. “They have the capabilities to do about any assignment that is tasked, including weapons of mass destruction and hazardous materials,” Blomenkamp said. “It’s an all hazards response unit.”
A posting on the Boone County Fire Protection District Facebook page Monday afternoon reported the six boats the Task Force transported to southeast Texas were being used in rescue efforts.
“Things are going real well at this point. We have a steady stream of boats coming and going and we continue to work side by side with private citizens and the Houston Fire Department”, said Task Force Leader Randy Sanders.
Blomenkamp points out the deployment to Texas, which could last up to 14 days and cost a million dollars, is being fully funded by FEMA. “When we deploy to a federal event like this, FEMA picks up the tab, the cost, the wages, the salaries, every bit of cost to deploy the team. It’s all federal funded.”
State tax dollars are used for efforts within Missouri, such as when the Task Force was sent out to assist with relief during floods in late April and early May.