Light rain fell down on Missouri Task Force 1 as they packed bags and trailers full of emergency relief equipment Friday afternoon. That rain would be nothing compared to the storms they’ll see this week.
But the first responders preparing to drive into a hurricane in Florida were eager to provide much-needed help.
“We’re just excited to go help folks in need,” said Adam Stoffer, a captain from the Boone County Fire Protection District who’s been with the task force for seven years.
The task force got orders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency around 2 p.m. Friday, deploying it to Jacksonville, Florida, to help with search and rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. Dorian strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane Friday evening and was expected to make landfall either Monday or Tuesday.
Missouri Task Force 1 is one of 28 urban search and rescue teams in the U.S. that stand ready to respond to emergency situations across the country. The team consists of 210 first responders from all over Missouri, 45 of which are deploying to Florida.
“We’ve been all over the country with various deployments so this is nothing new for us,” said Gale Blomenkamp, assistant chief with the Boone County Fire Protection District.
Blomenkamp said the team will most likely be there for around two weeks. He said fatigue starts to set in if the task force is there too long.
“It’s very rewarding, but the long days are tough. It’s tough to have to leave your family,” said Mark Jenkins, a hazmat specialist who’s been with the task force for nearly 16 years. “It’s tough when you’re on Day 8 or 10 and you’ve been up to your knees in mud. It can wear you out. That’s why we train here. We train a lot at Missouri Task Force 1.”
Jenkins said the support of his fellow task force members also helps him get through the tough days.
“We’re all brothers and sisters here in the fire service,” he said.
Task force members had a lot of time to think about their upcoming trip as they packed boats into trailers and strapped down generators and forklifts.
“I’m nervous,” said Robert Brown, a task force member. “(I have) concerns on what will happen, what could happen. With Mother Nature, you never know what she’ll do.”
Brown, however, has confidence in the team’s ability to handle these risks.
“Missouri Task Force 1 is the best of the best, so I know that we’ll do the best work, because we’re top notch. Why do you think they keep calling us up each time? Because we get the job done,” he said.
The task force is bringing a convoy of three semitrucks, five pickup trucks, a van, an excursion command vehicle, a bus and some support vehicles. They’ll be bringing six boats for water rescue, which they believe will be one of their main duties in Florida.
Along with the crew will be two black labs in their K9 unit. These dogs will assist in rescuing people in smaller hard-to-reach areas and more unstable buildings.
Utility crews from Missouri, including Columbia, and Arkansas also were preparing to head to Orlando, Florida, on Saturday morning to respond to likely power outages. A total of 46 utility workers from the two states were scheduled to deploy, according to a news release from the Missouri Public Utility Alliance.
Ryan Williams, assistant director of utilities at ColumbiaWater and Light, said the Columbia utility workers preparing to deploy were line superintendent Kevin Thornton, foremen Kris Betz and Charles Schouten, lineworkers Derrick Gallatin and Kyle Parrish, apprentice lineworker Cole Talley and drone foreman Scott Lutz. The city also planned to send a drone assistant.
Altogether, the Missouri and Arkansas utility crews planned to take 11 bucket trucks, six digger trucks, 14 other vehicles and aerial photography drones. Crews from as many as 20 other states were expected to join them in Florida.
Lineworkers from 14 Missouri utilities have responded nine times in the past year to areas stricken by winter storms, tornadoes or high winds, according to the alliance. They’ve been dispatched to Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands several times in recent years.
Paul Schloesser contributed to this story.
Supervising editor is Tynan Stewart.