Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Fairfax County Search and Rescue Team on the Ground in Japan


Fairfax County Search and Rescue Team on the Ground in Japan

Fairfax County's federally funded Urban Search and Rescue Team, Virginia Task Force One (VATF-1) has deployed 74 personnel including search and rescue canines, physicians, paramedics, structural engineers, technical search and rescue specialists, hazardous material specialists and other support personnel and approximately 30 tons of equipment as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) response to Japan to assist in the response to the earthquake and Tsunami.

I am so proud of the members of our USAR team for the incredible work they do. My heart goes out to the victims of this terrible tragedy and their families. Fairfax County's largest minority population is our Asian American community, and my thoughts and prayers are with our Japanese American community as they deal with the aftermath of this disaster.

As of Sunday night, the team was at Misawa Air Base with the United Kingdom's Heavy Team as well as the Australian Heavy Team and was preparing to head south to Ofunato, Japan. Ofunato is a seaport town which is 125 square miles in size and is 6 hours south (driving time) with an approximate population of 41,000. The Base of Operations in Ofunato is scheduled to be at Ofunato High School. Team members will be traveling with members of CATF-2, the Los Angeles based USAR team, by ground and by helicopter. Once in Ofunato, VATF-1 and CATF-2 will be under command of the Tokyo Fire Department.

VATF-1 departed Dulles International Airport at 2:00 A.M. on Saturday and arrived at Misawa Air Base in Northern Japan at 1:30 A.M. EST on Sunday. The team traveled through Los Angeles to pick up USAR CATF-2 who traveled with VATF-1 to Japan. VATF-1 and CATF-2 are the only two urban search and rescue teams in the U.S. qualified to respond to a disaster like the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan.

The capabilities of VATF-1 have been expanded on this mission in that this response includes a swift water boat response which includes a deployment of four swift water boats, swift water rescue gear and trained personnel. Many of the Fairfax County technical rescue workers deployed maintain swift water certifications which will aid in their rescue efforts. The team also deployed with cold weather gear due to the wide variance in temperatures in this part of Japan.

As always with this type of deployment, the mission and itinerary are subject to change at any time.

USAR will hold nightly teleconferences with the task force leaders and their family members while in Japan.

VATF-1's mission is fully funded by the federal government as is the filling of positions left open at home during deployment. Fairfax County benefits from the training and resources gained by participating in the USAID program.

Below is a map of the team's arrival point in relation to the epicenter.

We will update our website as more information comes in at

March 16, 2011 - Last night, I participated in a conference call arranged by our Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department with Chief Joe Knerr, co-head of our Urban Search and Rescue Team, VATF-1, in Japan. I appreciated the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of what is happening on the ground and to thank family members who called in for a family teleconference.

According to Chief Knerr the nature of the devastation in Ofunato has resulted in no live rescues. None the less, his team has maintained good spirits, and they are holding out hope that they will find victims. They recognize that with each passing hour, the likelihood of doing so dwindles.

Unlike in Haiti or in other rescue operations, the destruction in Japan has left very few "survivable voids," a space created within a collapsed building that contains enough oxygen and room for people to survive. A Tsunami "wipes everything out, and then takes it out to sea," Joe said on the call.

VATF-1 is stationed in an elementary school 10 miles from the search area. On Tuesday, with a temperature of 23 degrees and a couple of inches of snow on the ground, VATF-1 searched an area of Ofunato two square kilometers in size, and located eight deceased victims.

Our team and other international rescue teams are under the command of local first responders, in our case the Osaka Fire Department, so many of whom have lost so much. Despite the overwhelming devastation that surrounds them, these brave souls have chosen to lead teams of visitors into the wreckage that was once their homes, their schools and their neighborhoods, and search for signs of life in a sea of destruction.

Our team will remain on the ground until they are told by the Japanese leadership to stop. They are constantly monitoring the radiation levels and using every means available to stay informed of what's happening. The trouble reactors are to their south, and they are monitoring winds to make sure they avoid any potential problems. They've been experiencing some small aftershocks on a regular basis, but Joe joked that the last one was not severe enough to wake his team at 3:15 a.m. local time.

My thoughts and prayers continue to go out to the victims and their families as well as the rescue workers and their families back home waiting for their return. I was able to speak to some of the VATF-1 families here in Fairfax who participated in a conference call last night. I shared with them the complements and good wishes I've received from readers of this Byline and told them that I understood it was not easy being left behind while their loved ones are so far away going through a very difficult time. I also assured them that the work they are doing makes all of us so proud to call Fairfax County home.

Sharon Bulova
Chairman, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors


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