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A world-class search and rescue team at the Surfside collapse has responded to disasters including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina


By Scottie Andrew, CNN

When part of Champlain Towers South fell in Surfside, Florida, last week, members of a world-class search and rescue operation quickly arrived on the scene, working diligently to rescue victims from rubble that had once been condos.

The team is used to crises like this one. Though they’re based in Miami-Dade County, team members are dispatched across the US and around the world to tackle disasters of all kinds.

This time, though, the crisis was on their home turf.

They’re the members of Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force-1, a group of search and rescue experts that operates under FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When they’re not being dispatched to countries in crisis, many of them work for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue as local firefighters.

The task force, also known as Florida Task Force-1 or or FL-TF1, has responded to some of the most notable disasters in recent history. Members were dispatched to New York after the 9/11 attacks and to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. They’ve been on the ground in Haiti, rescuing victims of the 2010 earthquake, and in Rwanda, helping coordinate international rescue teams amid genocidal warfare in 1994.

Only once before have they responded in their own community, when Hurricane Andrew lashed South Florida in 1992. Responding to the Surfside building collapse is particularly challenging — aside from the dangers of heavy debris constantly shifting, the site is in their home county, and the victims may have been people they knew.

Now, instead of being the team to support groups leading the rescue and recovery, Florida Task Force-1 is leading that work themselves. There are few teams better equipped for it, said Curt Sommerhoff, former director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Emergency Management.

“You never want, obviously, an event like this to happen in your backyard,” he told CNN. “But if it’s going to happen in your backyard, to have the resources of a Florida Task Force-1 … that’s huge.”

They have experience in crises of all kinds

Members of FL-TF1 have seen it all: earthquakes, terrorist attacks, plane crashes, among others. Their breadth of expertise is what makes them so skilled and dependable in a disaster, said Carlos Castillo, a former FEMA official and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue veteran who helped develop Florida Task Force-1.

Florida Task Force-1 is one of 28 federal search and rescue task forces overseen by FEMA, and its capabilities extend beyond carefully removing rubble. There are health professionals who handle emergency care for victims who are trapped in debris, engineering experts who stabilize a toppled structure to prevent further damage, and logistics coordinators who keep all the responding teams organized. Disaster response can get muddled quickly, especially when dozens of different rescue groups are responding, like they are in Surfside. (In addition to the human members of Florida Task Force-1, there are dogs trained to detect living and deceased victims in the rubble, Castilllo said.)

Team members lug their own equipment with them when they travel to a disaster — about 50,000 pounds of it, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. They’re self-sufficient, so they won’t cause more damage or rely too heavily on the host state or country in crisis, Castillo said.

Most of the members of Florida Task Force-1 are also firefighters with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, Castillo said, and when they’re not called to a crisis, they’re responding to local emergencies. Between regular shifts, they’re training for the specialized work they’ll need to know when they’re dispatched to major disasters — they’re as familiar with firefighting as they are with using sonar tracking devices or cutting through concrete to rescue victims.

“That’s one of the benefits of this program, that specialized equipment, tools and training are available to be used in our home jurisdiction, such as what you see in the Surfside incident,” Castillo said.

Sommerhoff, who worked alongside FL-TF1 as head of the Miami-Dade County Department of Emergency Management, would often seek help from the task force for local hurricane prep and response, even for jobs like distributing supplies to residents or setting up a staging area for local officials.

“A lot more goes into what they do than [rescue],” said Sommerhoff, now director of emergency management at Florida State University.

The team was created after a catastrophic earthquake

Castillo was working for the Miami-Dade Fire Department when he and his fellow firefighters were dispatched to Soviet Armenia in 1988. A catastrophic earthquake had shaken the northern part of the country, and Soviet leaders asked the world for their assistance. But the process was uncoordinated, Castillo remembers — so many countries participated that it was unclear who was in charge and which teams were serving in different roles.

The disorganized response in Armenia partly inspired the US to found the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System, creating task forces of search and rescue specialists around the country who could be deployed to disaster sites within hours. Castillo helped design and lead the system, he said, which was first put into practice when Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992. (The Armenia disaster also inspired the United Nations to formalize an International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, Castillo noted.)

Since then, Florida Task Force-1 has built an international reputation for excellence, said Gregg Favre, a search and rescue expert who heads the St. Louis Area Regional Response System in Missouri, which does work similar to that of Florida Task Force-1.

“The quality and intensity of the team that Miami-Dade has in place is really significant,” said Favre, who formerly led the St. Louis Fire Department. “If there’s any sort of silver lining in all this, it’s having those resources, the preeminent specialists outside of the New York team or Texas team being within an hour of that response.”

It’s taxing but lifesaving work

Castillo’s first time representing the US on a rescue trip was after the earthquake in Armenia, where he rescued a woman who’d been trapped under rubble for five days. Later, officially as part of Florida Task Force-1, his first rescue operation following a terrorist event was in Oklahoma City. His first time leading a federal response was in the aftermath of 9/11, where he shepherded the incident support team that responded to the Pentagon.

Despite his pride in the team he helped create, it was demanding work, and it takes a toll on responders, Castillo said.

“It’s difficult emotionally and physically,” he said. “The more you’re involved physically, the more emotionally it affects you.”

The building collapse in Surfside, where more than 140 people are still unaccounted for as of Wednesday afternoon, is a particularly taxing assignment, Castillo said, because it’s likely that some members of Florida Task Force-1 knew some of the victims or residents who still haven’t been found.

Still, he said, many of the members of FL-TF1 have stuck with the rescue work for most of their careers because of the rewarding elements of their job — such as saving lives and helping heal their community.

“I’m proud that what I started has gotten to this point, and to have grown throughout the country — that’s a positive thing,” he said.

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