Just one week after its first full-scale training exercise, the Swift Water Rescue Strike Team used its training to rescue more than 1,100 Houstonians trapped by rising flood waters in the wake of Tropical Storm Allison.
The Swift Water Rescue Strike Team, a part of Texas Task Force One (TX-TF1), is the only statewide water rescue team in the nation.
“This represents a change in the scope of TX-TF1 to incorporate water rescue into our mission, and to allow the task force to effectively respond to flooding,” said TEEX Director Dr. Kem Bennett. “TEEX is the agency responsible for search and rescue operations under the state Emergency Management Plan, so it’s our responsibility to respond to flooding. The rescue operation in Houston has demonstrated the importance of this team.”
“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,” says Tim Gallagher, director of emergency response and rescue for TEEX. “And flooding is often the deadliest force of a tropical storm.”
When Tropical Storm Allison dropped as much as two feet of rain in the Houston metroplex on June 8 and 9, flood waters rose to unprecedented heights with unprecedented speed. Harris County officials report the storm left 22 people dead and caused more than $4 billion in damage.
TX-TF1, which is sponsored by TEEX, was activated by the Texas Department of Emergency Management about 4 a.m., Saturday, June 9. The Swift Water Rescue Strike Team squads from agencies and fire departments in Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin and Bryan reported to the northwest side of Houston, where they set up a base of operations at a high school. The Army National Guard sent six Black Hawks and two Chinooks to assist the team’s rescue efforts. Then the squads immediately began responding to the 700 pending water rescue calls made to the Emergency Operations Center of the Houston Fire Department.
With the faxed requests from the EOC in hand, Gallagher and other TEEX staff, which included Al Guarino, Todd Reynolds and Juan Mendez, began computer mapping the calls by location and sector of the city. Using a mapping program, they pinpointed the longitude and latitude of the addresses to give exact locations for the National Guard helicopter pilots to transport the rescue squads. About 80 team members worked straight through the night until 10 a.m. Sunday, June 10, Gallagher said.
The call-out came exactly one week after the team finished training exercises on the Guadalupe River on June 1, which was the start of the Texas hurricane season.
“The exercise was a test to bring all of the water rescue team members together with the National Guard so they could practice working together and make sure their communications equipment was capatible,” Gallagher said.
“The teams were given real rescue scenarios, and we tested them in real time to find out how quickly they recognized the problem, came up with a plan and completed the rescue.”
The “dry run” paid off for more than 1,100 Houstonians a week later. Gallagher says the team is definitely ready for hurricane season, which lasts until Nov. 30.
“We’re very fortunate because Texas has more trained swift water rescue technicians than any other state,” he adds “And all of the members joined this team for the same reason—they want to save lives.”