Taylorsville firefighters travel to Virginia to assist with devastating Hurricane Florence response
Oct 31, 2018 03:14PM
● By Jana Klopsch
Members of the Utah Task Force One emergency response team pack their gear to travel to Virginia to assist with Hurricane Florence devastation. (Utah Task Force One)
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A pair of long-time Utah Fire Authority (UFA) firefighters – and seasoned members of the prestigious Utah Task Force One emergency response team – took a leave of absence from their duties at the Taylorsville-Plymouth UFA Fire Station 117 several weeks ago, to drive nonstop to Virginia to assist with the devastation of Hurricane Florence.
Paul Van Harn and Jonathan VanHuss were two of 16 Utah firefighters who headed east in a convoy, arriving just before the storm made landfall.
Their coordinator is UFA Division Chief Brian Case.
“Paul and Jonathan have each been members of Task Force One for several years,” Chief Case said. “And they have deployed out of state for training exercises before. But this was their first deployment for an actual disaster outside Utah.”
“It was a great experience because we always want to help and to use the skills we have developed while training,” Van Harn said. “This was my first ‘real’ deployment. But I also went to Texas for a mock deployment.”
His Station 117 counterpart on the deployment, VanHuss added, “These deployments have incredible training value because they let us apply the skills we have learned. It is great practice that helps us get that much better at our jobs.”
VanHuss, Van Harn and 14 other Task Force One members rolled out of Utah September 11, at about 3 a.m. The group convoyed some 40 straight hours, arriving at a Virginia motel after dark on September 12.
The group of 16 firefighters – and all of their equipment – is referred to as a “Mission Ready Package,” or MRP.
“The MRP included three boats on a trailer, two pickup trucks, a 15-passenger van and a 28-foot box truck filled with other equipment,” Chief Case added. “Our teams take provisions to be fully self-sufficient for up to 96 hours. They spent their first night in a motel, and then moved into a National Guard Armory for the rest of their stay.”
The Utah contingent stayed in South Boston, Virginia, a city of just over 8,000 residents near the North Carolina state line.
According to some reports, Hurricane Florence created “the worst flooding event in East Coast history.” More than three dozen lives were claimed, while tens of thousands of people were forced to flee and millions were without electricity.
However, an abrupt turn by the hurricane – just as it was making landfall – spared Virginia residents substantially, and created an anticlimactic finish for the Utah Task Force One team members.
“It turned out there was no dramatic flooding in the area where our team was deployed,” Chief Case added. “They did go out and inspect areas, doing reconnaissance work. But it was nothing compared to what emergency response teams further south had to deal with.”
Teams like the Task Force One MRP were distributed throughout the region, under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Simply by the luck of Mother Nature’s draw, the Utah group had it much easier than many of their counterparts.
“When we first arrived (in Virginia) it was still a Class Four storm before idling down and turn away from our location,” Van Harn said. “We looked around the area for boat access spots and did other recon. We also watched the level of the Dan River rise from 10 to 27 feet. But it did not spill over the banks in our area.”
Utah Task Force One operates with an annual budget of about $1.2-million in federal funding. The local team has about 180 to 200 members.
“Overall, there are 28 task forces like ours across the country,” Chief Case concluded. “They have a total of about 6,000 members and operate with a FEMA budget of just under $40-million.”
Once the crisis was over, the Utahns convoyed back home, albeit at a much more comfortable rate. They took three days to get back, arriving September 22.
“I love to help people because it is what I train for on Task Force One,” Van Harn concluded. “The trip was very valuable even though we didn’t end up doing as much as we might have.”
His fellow Taylorsville-Plymouth UFA Fire Station 117 firefighter on the deployment, VanHuss, concurred.
“The value of deploying on this mission was tremendous,” he said. “It was good practice to make us even better equipped to help people the next time we are sent out.”