When a devastating tornado struck downtown Fort Worth last week, Texas Task Force 1 responded to the call for help. The state’s urban search and rescue team, sponsored by the Texas Engineering Extension Service, was called out by the state Division of Emergency Management less than 2 hours after two tornadoes wreaked destruction in downtown Fort Worth, Arlington and Grand Prairie about 6:20 p.m. Tuesday, March 28.
The F-2 storm with winds up to 157 mph left four people dead and caused an estimated $400 million in property damages.
Once the team was called out, Dr. Kem Bennett and Billy Parker of TEEX immediately headed to Fort Worth with specialized search and reconnaissance equipment to aid in the rescue efforts, said Tim Gallagher, TEEX director of emergency response and rescue.
By 6:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, TX TF-1 had set up a base of operations at the Fort Worth Fire Training Academy and had begun searching several damaged and destroyed structures west of downtown Fort Worth. The team searched the nine-story Cash America building, the 68,000-square-foot Chocolate Factory and several smaller structures, Gallagher said. Seventy-seven TX TF-1 members and TEEX employees were involved in the operation.
TX TF-1 White Team Leader Jay Peacock, who is also battalion chief at the Fort Worth Fire Department, was the local incident commander at the scene of the tornado. Gallagher said TX TF-1 members who reside in the Dallas/Fort Worth area were instructed to check in at Fire Station #2 in Fort Worth, while the rest of the team reported to College Station, according to the current task force mobility plan. Accountability for all team members is extremely important, he added.
The operation was completed by 6 p.m. Wednesday night, after task force members had completed the search of structures assigned by the Fort Worth Fire Department.
“The operation went very smoothly,” Gallagher said. “As far as experience, we could never replicate that experience in a training exercise.
“I don’t think many members of the team have been involved in a large-scale disaster of this type. The focus of urban search and rescue operations is large-scale structural collapse, so they got to use their training and the equipment designed for this purpose. It was also a big morale booster for the team.”
TX TF-1 was formed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing to respond to disasters anywhere in Texas. The team is comprised of 186 emergency responders from around the state and has a cache of search and rescue equipment valued at $2 million.
TX TF-1 is as well-equipped and trained as any other task force in the federal response system, said Gallagher, who has worked with urban search and rescue (USAR) since its inception in 1990. Prior to joining TEEX, Gallagher was Task Force Leader for Arizona’s urban search and rescue team, AZ TF-1, and a member the Phoenix Fire Department.
“We gained lots of experience that will make us better the next time,” Gallagher said. “There are lots of lessons learned that we can plug into our plan and improve on, especially in cutting down the time it takes to get out the door and get to the site quickly. This can and will translate into more lives saved.”
In addition to Gallagher, Bennett and Parker, other TEEX employees who were involved in the search and rescue operation in Fort Worth were James Hyles, Thom Jones, Juan Mendez, Todd Reynolds and John Ryan. Pat Barrett and Mike Wisby were assigned to the state’s Emergency Operation Center (EOC) in Austin.