Wain Gaskins, PE, the Director of West Tennessee Operations for Cannon & Cannon, Inc. had the opportunity to volunteer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in October. He has shared with us how FEMA operates and his experience volunteering in South Carolina after Hurricane Matthew.
What is FEMA?
FEMA is a government agency that works to prepare for, protect against, respond to, and recover from disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, floods, terrorist activities, or hazardous material releases. Wain specifically works with the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force (US&R). These Task Force teams provide support during large scale disasters in the United States by locating, rescuing and providing medical assistance to individuals trapped in confined spaces. There are 28 Task Forces in the United States, and FEMA will deploy the appropriate number of teams based on disaster severity and location.
Where is Wain Assigned?
Wain is assigned to the Tennessee Task Force One (TNTF1) team in Memphis, TN. With only 4 hours’ notice, this nationally recognized group can be sent to a community in need with supplies and 80-90 highly trained members. The team is composed of experts from fire and police departments and working professionals such as doctors, engineers and search dog handlers. Each Task Force location should have enough personnel to field three separate fully functional teams so that each team is “on call” once every three months. Currently, Memphis is down to three or four engineers which means that Wain is “on call” two out of every three months.
Wain’s Experience After Hurricane Matthew
As Hurricane Matthew was approaching the east coast, FEMA activated and deployed 10 of the 28 Task Forces. When TNTF1 was activated, Wain became a federal employee and committed to a 12-day deployment. His team was notified of deployment at 2:30 pm. They did not achieve the 4-hour departure window, and left Memphis at 9:30 pm. An engineer had a severe fever, and his replacement was called and had to leave Liberty Bowl Stadium while watching University of Memphis game.
Upon leaving Memphis, Wain’s team was assigned to a military base in Georgia to stage for assistance in Florida. As the team stopped for gas in Murfreesboro, TN the mission changed to staging in Ft. Bragg, NC. Four hours later at the next gas stop, their destination changed again to Columbia, SC. After two location changes and 16 hours of driving, TNTF1 finally arrived at the SC State Fire Academy, and were told to get some rest. The old army saying, “hurry up and wait” certainly applies to FEMA.
The mission in South Carolina was to be available as needed. FEMA attempts to pre-stage teams in areas just outside anticipated impact zones so they can respond quickly once the event is completed. For this event, Wain and the team were on standby for three days. Hurricane Matthew mostly stayed off shore, and impacts were substantially much less than they could have been. Some local water rescue teams were sent to Charleston, but that is not what Wain’s team specializes in. At least six of the ten activated teams did not enter into search and rescue operations. If Wain’s team had continued on to Ft. Bragg, NC it is likely that they would have entered operations due to the massive flooding that occurred in that area.
Wain has been deployed to New York (Long Island) for Hurricane Sandy and to Moore, Oklahoma for a F5 tornado. On both deployments, he was amazed and grateful that the loss of life was not as great as it could have been. Wain and other engineers were able to use professional skills to construct the facilities that protected life, but it was obvious that God had His hand of protection over the families in homes that were completely swept off of their foundations.
What is the Job Description?
As a Structures Specialist (StS), Wain performs various structural assessments for the Urban Search & Rescue Task Force during incident operations. A Structures Specialist is specifically responsible for:
- Assessing the immediate structural condition of the affected area by identifying structure types, specific damage and structural hazard,
- Recommending the appropriate type and amount of structural hazard mitigation,
- Cooperating with and assisting other search and rescue resources,
- Monitoring assigned structures for condition changes,
- Coordinating and communicating the structural related hazard mitigation with IST Structural Unit Leader,
- And accountability, maintenance, and minor repairs for all issued equipment.
The task force has very specific requirements for positions. In addition to the basic US&R System requirements the StS must:
- Have completed the FEMA Structural Specialist Course (StS1),
- Be currently licensed as a Professional Engineer with specialization in structures or equivalent as sanctioned by the FEMA US&R Structures Sub-Group,
- And have a minimum of 5 years’ experience in structural design and analysis.