By Shawn Chitnis
LAKEWOOD, Colo. (CBS4)– Members of Colorado Task Force One are on their way to help with Hurricane Florence. The urban search and rescue team based out of West Metro Fire Rescue are helping with the category 4 storm.
“We work in a world where we have very little intelligence when we first respond,” said Steve Aseltine, the task force leader for CO-TF1 and a division chief with West Metro Fire. “We’ve been to the World Trade Center, Katrina, many other hurricanes.”
Nearly four dozen first responders from across Colorado left Lakewood Tuesday morning to head to North Carolina. They expect to arrive Wednesday afternoon.
The team is made up of doctors, paramedics, firefighter, and engineers. There is also a hazardous materials unit that deploys within the team. Their responsibility is the safety of the crew to make sure they can carry out rescues once they’re in the path of the hurricane.
“We take charge of that environment and make sure it’s the right conditions to effect a successful rescue,” said Sharyl West, the HazMat team manager. “We’re pretty much planned for pretty much everything.”
The team is very concerned about the impact of Florence on the Carolinas. They’ve studied the forecast and know this could be a devastating natural disaster.
“A category four storm, that’s a really big, powerful storm,” said Aseltine. “If it comes to shore at that, which it’s expected to do, that could be catastrophic for residences, buildings, infrastructure.”
The team is one of 28 FEMA task forces across the country. They will bring various boats, truckloads of gear, even search dogs to their final destination. The intense planning comes from the vast experience among the members on their team.
“Hurricane Katrina, I deployed to that one, that was one of the most labor intensive,” said West. “Everybody was working as constantly as hard as they possibly could.”
The assignment calls for long hours with very little rest. During a briefing before their convoy left the West Metro Fire training center, all members of the team were reminded to take turns driving and make sure they take appropriate breaks on their way to North Carolina.
“We were thinking on our feet, we were working hard, we were making effective rescues via boats,” West added. “The physical preparedness is just trying to sleep at night and that’s hard.”
The men and women from Task Force One are ready to go into the danger zone to help those most in need just as residents are evacuating or have already cleared the scene. It takes a mental awareness to pull off what this crew has promised to do time and time again.
“It’s something that we’re sworn to do, it’s something we signed up to do, quite frankly it’s something that we’re the best at and we’re well trained to do so we’re prepared and ready to go in,” said Aseltine.
“It’s an opportunity to provide a service that only a select few get to provide,” said West.
Given the strength of the storm it is unclear how long the recovery process will take or when they will return to Colorado. The team has prepared to stay there for a extended period, knowing the storm could require years to rebuild from even before they arrive.
“My number one goal, all the men and women, the other 44 members of this team, come home to their families,” said Aseltine.