This is Part 4 of my interview with Capt. Joe Knerr and Lt. Rodney Vaughan of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s elite international search and rescue team, Virginia Task Force 1. In this part, we discuss the team’s decision to come home; their thoughts on not having any rescues; the difference their team makes; and what coming home feels like after being a world away.
Cooper: So the leads for the disaster response have come and told you that you’ve completed your assignments, you’ve done as much as you can and its time to get back to the Air Base [Misawa Air Force Base]. Now you’re just basically waiting for another assignment or to ship out for home. When does that decision come, and who comes and tells you?
Capt. Knerr: We report to what is known as a DART – Disaster Assistance Response Team –that’s assembled of USAID members. We report specifically to the operations coordinator, and that decision for us to come home is made at a much higher level than us. It’s done within USAID, in coordination and cooperation with the affected government, so once they make that decision it’s just reported down through the line, and essentially what they do is they tell us: “You need to be ready to leave at this time.” And then we kind of do a backwards planning of what we need to do to be prepared to leave, whether that’s pack our equipment, get it loaded to the plane… Whatever it is that we need to do to be prepared to be on the plane or buses at that time.
Cooper: Do you call one of the Japanese authorities over and say: “Hey, you guys are in a little bit of dire straits here right now. Is there anything equipment we have here that you’d like us to leave behind for you to use?”
Capt. Knerr: We always offer that up, but it’s done at a higher level through USAID. If we have a resource they can use, we’ll gladly leave it. If they have need for us to assist with something other than one of the things that we as a USAR (urban search and rescue) team do…, Well it’s almost like typecasting in movie; people focus on us as solely rescue and absolutely, that is our specialty. However, we are somewhat of a workforce that can be used at times too.
As you transition out of the rescue phase into the recovery phase, there are still rescue techniques that we can use. Haiti was a prime example where we had techniques and capabilities to shore up a building that is unstable for us to enter and make a rescue. We can use those same techniques at hospitals that had been affected to open up other wings of the hospital because now we have stabilized the building, they can use it for emergency purposes.