STARKE, Fla. - When your life depends on it, first responders are there. However, when there's an emergency like a hurricane, the governor often calls up the Florida National Guard for additional help.
With the countdown to June 1, the official start of the 2019 hurricane season, and with the reminder from Hurricane Michael that storms can be deadly and devastating, search and rescue teams are training hard for the next emergency.
The Florida National Guard teams that were on the ground in the Panhandle last October after Michael made landfall as a Category 5 storm, invited News4Jax to see firsthand how they are training for the next emergency.
Training to save lives
As the sun came up May 8 on Camp Blanding in Starke, elite rescue teams geared up for training that could later mean the difference between life and death for Florida families.
WATCH: Training at Camp Blanding
“We are designed to respond to a catastrophic disaster,” said SFC Alden “Chuck” Morrow, from the Florida National Guard.
Morrow is commanding a team of elite responders known as CERFP. It was formed after the September 11 attacks to respond to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive situations.
In the past decade, these men and women have trained with state agencies to respond to natural disasters as well.
“The big thing that we have to do here is make sure everyone knows their role,” said Brig. Gen.Trey Chauncey.
As temperatures rose into the upper 80s, Chauncey watched as dozens of National Guard members worked hand in hand with firefighters from Nassau County to Miami Beach.
“The entire team of Florida is being leveraged,” added Col. Michael Ladd, with the US Army. “There’s nothing that’s not being leveraged.”
Best of the best
In the worst case scenario, like a major hurricane targeting Florida, the governor has the power to call in the best of the best. Urban Search and Rescue Teams (USAR), comprised of local firefighters and law enforcement, are put together. If the situation is dire enough, the National Guard is mobilized.
Guard members, who volunteer to be part of the rescue teams, are eager and ready to get involved.
“We’re not perfect but we’re pretty damn good at what we do,” Morrow said.
Florida National Guard leaders say this training is crucial for the next disaster because they know it’s not a matter of if -- it’s a matter of when.
“This is the last collective event prior to the hurricane season where we get out and we kick the tires on things,” said Ladd.
The Florida National Guard CERFP members were among the pioneers of working directly with state agencies – search and rescue task forces, filled with local firefighters and police.
“We’ve had the chance to respond to hurricanes for the last 4 years, Hermine, Matthew, Michael, Irma,” Morrow explained. “So yeah, we’re getting pretty good at this or we realize things we need to do better and every year we implement those things.”
In fact, a News4Jax crew first met Morrow and his Guard team in Mexico Beach, hours after Category 5 Hurricane Michael tore through the Panhandle last October.
Simulated scenario: Trapped
The simulated scenarios carried out at Camp Blanding were very similar to the challenges men and women faced in the Panhandle after Michael.
In one scenario, someone is trapped in a collapsed building surrounded by thousands of pounds of rubble. Firefighters and National Guard members work side-by-side with hand tools to burrow through concrete slabs, remove debris and eventually get to the trapped patient to safety. They assess the injuries, put the victim on a stretcher, and then bring the victim out of a tunnel.
That patient, with critical injuries, is taken to higher ground for an airlift. That’s when the helicopter team comes in. They’re at a nearby landing zone waiting for the call, what the military refers to as a “9-line.”
Rescuers on the ground stabilize the person until a flight medic drops in and lifts the person onto the Blackhawk hovering above.
Simulated scenario: Water Rescue
Florida is surrounded by water, making flooding the biggest killer in storms. Because of that, the teams we watched train at Camp Blanding spend a lot of time honing their skills with simulated water rescues. Helicopter crews lower baskets to evacuate people out of harm's way.
The partnership between military and civilian makes these team elite. The Florida National Guard can provide military members, trucks and helicopters -- equipment that can move people to safety and deliver lifesaving supplies. Then, when paired with local law enforcement and firefighters who have knowledge on the ground and experience, they make an invaluable team.
“They’re the best at what they do and we clearly understand that,” Ladd told News4Jax. “We have a wartime mission that we train to.”
Together, they have saved hundreds of lives but know even more can be done.
Leaders tell us communicating has been a weak point during the worst storms. It can be crippling for crews on the ground and those at emergency operations centers like this one. That happened this past year in the aftermath of Michael in the Panhandle. Troops couldn’t communicate with leaders in Tallahassee.
Teams on the ground had little to no access to information from leaders across the state. In turn, those leaders couldn’t get in contact with the boots on the ground.
That was as big focus of this year’s training -- establishing a better infrastructure for communication. Commanders hope new technology and better training will cut out the lag.
“Lifesaving is key,” said Chauncey. “This is the one place we cannot be late to need. Because it can be the difference between life and death.”
To these heroes, it's clear it's more than just a job.
“You’ll see instead of handshakes, hugs,” Ladd added. “And that is critical when you are depending on the guy or gal to your left or right to save your life and take part in life-saving opportunities.”
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