It’s Monday, Aug. 14, and Tim Gallagher is on a conference call with some members of Texas Task Force 1. Next to the phone, two computer screens with National Weather Service maps show the predicted landfall of Tropical Storm Beryl. The storm is making a beeline for the coast of South Texas and northern Mexico.
“The DEM has alerted us to be on standby in case this storm heads into South Texas,” Gallagher says into the phone. “I’ve already got calls in to the water rescue team members . Okay . Pat, you report to DEM in Austin . Yes, we’ll make a decision after the briefing today at 1600 hours.”
As he hangs, up, Gallagher, Director of Emergency Response for TX TF-1, says the storm in the Gulf of Mexico has just been upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane and the state Division of Emergency Management has put the Texas Urban Search and Rescue task force on standby.
“This could be the first call-out of our new Flood Rescue Strike Team,” he says. Texas is the first state to form a statewide flood rescue strike team such as this, and the team could be leaving on its first official rescue mission if this storm strikes South Texas, he adds, as he glances back at the weather maps.
The phone rings. He checks the number on the caller ID screen, then picks up the receiver.
“Gallagher here .Yes, we’re on standby .Right. Your guys need to have their bags packed and by the door. We’ll know after 1600 hours .Okay.”
“That was the Austin Fire Department,” he says when he hangs up. They have five people on the Flood Rescue Strike Team, he explains. The team is made up of four squads with five members each, plus a team leader, an assistant team leader, a logistics specialist and a technical support specialist.
The phone rings again. It’s the Houston Fire Department calling. Gallagher checks the weather maps on his computers again, and updates the squad leader on the phone.
Between phone calls, Gallagher explains the significance of the new flood rescue strike team, which was brought under the umbrella of TX TF-1, following the recent approval by the state Urban Search and Rescue Advisory Board.
“This represents a change in the scope of TX TF-1 to incorporate water rescue into our mission,” Gallagher said. “This change was needed to allow the task force to respond to flooding. It required us to reconfigure and reengineer our organization and equipment.
“In Texas, TEEX is the primary agency responsible for search and rescue operations, and flooding is a search and rescue problem. So, we have to respond.”
TX TF-1 was recently made a part of the national Urban Search and Rescue Response System, under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“FEMA developed the Urban Search and Rescue Response System in 1990, following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area of California. Its main focus was structural collapse,” says Gallagher, who has been involved with the national US&R System since it began.
“But more lives are lost and more structures are damaged every year due to flooding than all the structural collapse we’ve ever had in this country,” he says. “And flooding can be the deadliest force of a tropical storm.”
TX TF-1 has members who are trained for water rescue, Gallagher said, but the team didn’t have the proper equipment for water rescue. This was forcefully brought home to team members during the Del Rio flooding in 1998, he added. Just last year, the widespread flooding in North Carolina following Hurricane Floyd garnered national attention for the importance of training and equipment for water rescue.
Three FEMA task forces were called out to assist after Hurricane Floyd, but did not have the proper equipment for water rescue, Gallagher said. “In these situations, you must have professionals who are trained and equipped for the job,” he said. “You never want to send untrained or ill-equipped people to a rescue operation”.
“We’re very fortunate,” he added. “Texas has more trained swift water rescue technicians than any other state. Most of the members of the new Texas flood rescue strike team are members of technical rescue teams in their own cities, which include Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas.” In addition, TEEX has purchased a trailer that contains all the rescue equipment, personal protective equipment and base of operations equipment the flood rescue strike teams needs.
Timing is even more critical in flood rescue operations, so the flood rescue strike team has to be ready to go in one hour, instead of the four to six hours for the structural collapse teams, Gallagher says. The Texas National Guard provides air support for
TX TF-1 and will fly the team anywhere it needs to go, he adds. “We’re here for the citizens of Texas, and we’ll go where we’re needed.”
Editor’s Note: Tropical Storm Beryl weakened and the Flood Rescue Strike Team wasn’t needed — at least, not this time. But they’re ready, because there will be a next time.