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Marin’s search-and-rescue team “ready to roll”

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Beth Winegarner
News Pointer Editor
November 9, 2004

On Sept. 11, 2001, Marin County Fire Department Fire Captain Tim Walsh was fighting a fire in Butte County when his pager went off.

He was dispatched to McClelland Air Force Base, where he waited hours for the clearance necessary to board a plane to Virginia, the scene of a terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

“Dawn comes around and we can see out the windows, and there are fighter escorts on either side of us,” Walsh said. “We felt important — until we were told they were there to shoot us down if our plane veered from its course.”

Walsh was dispatched there as a member of Marin Urban Search and Rescue team, which recently became the first of its kind to be deputized to respond to emergencies anywhere in the state of California. He spent more than two weeks on the ground in Virginia helping the federal USAR team clear away the wreckage, rescue survivors and handle the bodies of the dead.

It took a few days for local crews to figure out what to make of Walsh, who spent the first 24 hours mopping floors and setting up cots. Soon they figured out he was trained to create maps of crisis scenes and analyze them, and he was good at getting things done.

“They asked us to get copies of the incident action plan, and I asked if it would be easier to buy a copy machine,” Walsh said. Others were skeptical, but he made it happen. “Twenty minutes later, trucks were backing up with Kinko’s-sized copy machines.”

Walsh helped federal USAR teams create new blueprints of the damaged areas of the Pentagon, and maps of where the bodies were. He set up his own geographic information systems laboratory in his hotel room.

The work was slow because it was a major rescue operation, but also a crime scene. “You had the Department of Justice, the FBI and agencies I’ve never heard of. Everyone’s conducting separate investigations. USAR wants to clear it out because they’re searching for bodies, and the others want to preserve the crime scene.”

The impressions of the scene have remained with Walsh, from the charred interiors of the Pentagon’s lower floors to the melted and warped plastics of upper floors and “a lot of stuff you obviously would like to forget,” he said.

At the end of those two weeks, Walsh returned home to life with the Marin County Fire Department, returning his expertise to Marin USAR.

Marin Urban Search and Rescue, a public entity, consists of personnel on loan from other agencies including local fire departments and protection districts, the Marin County sheriff’s department, public works departments, the San Francisco Fire Department, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the National Park Service.

Marin USAR got the attention of Gov. Gray Davis after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “When the teams were being deployed, the governor’s office asked if they could use our personnel in the intelligence center they created,” said Farhad Mansourian, director of Marin County Public Works and a co-founder of Marin USAR. “Our personnel were so highly trained, they impressed people. [The governor’s office] started looking at us more and more and liked what we’d done.”

After the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, Calif., Mansourian and others realized that local agencies could be responsible for heavy-rescue operations in collapsed freeways or large buildings. “But we had no training, no equipment and no formal way of providing that,” Mansourian said. “Even a huge department like Los Angeles County was overrun with problems.”

Marin USAR has spent the past 10 years recruiting team members from public works, firefighting and other agencies, honing their skills and scrimping and saving to purchase state-of-the-art equipment.

“There’s really no budget,” Mansourian said. “The equipment and everyone comes to us through begging, borrowing, stealing and granting. The federal government has not handed over millions of dollars.”

Mansourian said the slow, quiet progress has earned Marin USAR quite a reputation, even if Marinites don’t know about it. “We are now a task force for the state of California. Many are surprised that we have such a sophisticated rescue team in our backyard and they don’t even know it.”

In recent years, the threat of terrorism has created a need for teams that can handle hazardous materials or weapons of mass destruction. And Marin learned that, in a major disaster, it would be on its own.

“We were told that under a regional disaster, other federal and state teams would not come here — they typically go where the center of population is. We felt we are completely vulnerable,” Mansourian said.

Today, Marin USAR has a variety of specialized departments, including logistics, structural engineering, HAZMAT/WMD, water rescue, confined-space rescue, heavy rigging, medical and incident management.

In 10 years, the group has acquired an impressive array of equipment, starting with what Mansourian describes as a “23rd century response vehicle. It’s very powerful and it looks like outer-space vehicles.” It’s used to lift heavy objects while also having a lot of components on board.

In addition, Marin USAR has boats and personal watercraft, sensitive machines to detect hazardous materials or nuclear weaponry, unique medical equipment, machines to assist in confined-space rescue or trench rescue, and sensitive listening devices and cameras that can detect the smallest amount of movement or sound.

To go with the specialized equipment, Marin USAR has a diverse crew of people to handle various operations — and they’re constantly training. “We have expertise from crane and heavy-equipment operators to folks from the fire side and emergency response. It’s a unique combination,” Mansourian said.

The team has learned “it doesn’t take an urban setting to have a disaster,” Mansourian said. In recent years, it has responded to rescue efforts such as when a three-story home in Tam Valley collapsed, creating a mudslide that buried two teens. Marin USAR’s water-rescue team is frequently dispatched.

“You don’t need to call for the entire task force,” Mansourian said. “These are just added community resources that provide a higher level of service.”

Marin USAR can help fill the gap between first-responders and federal USAR teams. “We are mobile, ready to roll. The goal is to hit the road in 45 minutes,” Mansourian said. “Federal teams have more heavy equipment, so it takes them a while to get there. They have a four-hour window to report to their data point just for personnel to get together.

“In rescue, time is of an essence,” Mansourian added. “The longer victims are buried, the less chance of survival.”

This article originally appeared in the San Rafael/Terra Linda News Pointer.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 9, 2004 at 8:44 PM

Posted in Marin County

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