Fire departments seeking search and rescue funding before disaster strikes

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North Carolina’s Search and Rescue Program helped save more than 2,000 citizens during Hurricane Matthew. Now, a new bill introduced in  the State House of Representatives could provide the funding needed to consistently support the program’s future.

House Bill 189, recently introduced to the state legislature, lays out language and guidelines for the program to follow, under the direction of N.C. Division of Emergency Management. It also requests the appropriation of nearly $2.4 million in state funds to support the rescue teams.

State representatives Ted Davis and Holly Grange are two of four primary sponsors of the bill.

The $2.4 million represents a 50-50 share in cost split between state and local entities. That number is based on a study, which indicated a total of $4.5 million is needed to support the rescue team’s efforts as a whole.

The North Carolina Search and Rescue Team is a combination of state and local resources, including manpower, that are utilized across the state to provide fully trained and equipped personnel to communities when disaster strikes.

Team #11 working to lift a concrete slab as part of their training on Thursday.
Team No. 11 working to lift a concrete slab as part of their training on Thursday. Photos by Christina Haley.

“This is a very specialized program, in that it provides the kind of equipment and trained personnel to handle structural collapse issues in concrete buildings; very complex rescues of a very dangerous nature.” Wilmington Fire Chief Buddy Martinette said. “We’ve gone through the process to have a bill introduced to provide funding for these teams so that they can continue to sustain themselves.”

Federal grants helped to establish specialized search and rescue teams after 9/11. Regional teams were contracted by the state and in 2014, House Bill 698 was ratified to formally establish the regional search and rescue teams in the state, but funding for the program has not yet been obtained, according to the North Carolina Coalition of Metropolitan Fire Chiefs. 

Another attempt was made during the 2015-2016 fiscal year, but the funding was removed late in the process.

Martinette said that since federal funds are starting to “dry up” for this program, the money is having to come from the localities that actually provide the specialized teams. Funding from the state government would keep those localities from baring all of the burden to support training, equipment, maintenance and other things needed by the program, he said.

Local officials say that Hurricane Matthew showed just how vital the program is to the citizens of the state. It was the smaller, more rural communities that lacked specialized equipment that people needed. Five of the state’s seven search and rescue task forces were able to provide that assistance in late September and into October.

This N.C. Search and Rescue trailer carries tents needed to shelter teams during response.
This N.C. Search and Rescue trailer carries tents needed to shelter teams during response.

In total, North Carolina Search and Rescue Teams had been deployed on three federal, 17 state, and 112 local missions, prior to Hurricane Matthew.

“This is an opportunity for our state to make certain that all of our citizens are protected during times of crisis and need, when local rescue resources are unavailable or overwhelmed,” Wilmington Fire Department Battalion Chief David Hines said.

The North Carolina Search and Rescue Program includes two “Type I” teams of between 72 and 80 people, located in Charlotte and Raleigh. There are five additional “Type II” teams – a group of about 36 trained personnel — located in Wilmington/New Hanover County, Buncombe County, Greensboro, Greenville, and Fayetteville.

Search and Rescue members train on concrete at CFCC's North Campus. Photos by Christina Haley.
Search and Rescue members train on concrete at CFCC’s North Campus.

The teams combined have more than 150 specialty vehicles, $6,174,500 in highly specialized rescue gear, and $14,500,000 in total assets.

North Carolina Search and Rescue Team No. 11, is a regional task force hosted in New Hanover County, and combines trained personnel from both New Hanover County Fire Rescue and the Wilmington Fire Department.

The two agencies joined together Thursday afternoon for training, at Cape Fear Community College’s North Campus Training Grounds, where city and county firefighters performed several tactics used during deployment.

A firefighter works to break up concrete, as part of his search and rescue training.
A firefighter works to break up concrete, as part of his search and rescue training.

Fire personnel worked on strategically moving and busting through concrete, using saws, a jackhammer and other types of specialized emergency equipment.

 “These teams are designed to operate independently of any external support for 72 hours. The idea behind that is they don’t want to burden our local government which is also having the crisis,” Martinette said. “More importantly, this team is available should we have a natural or a terrorist event where a concrete reinforced building is damaged. These are the people that would come and rescue people out of those buildings.”

An 18-wheeler trailer carries supplies that search and rescue teams need in the field.
An 18-wheeler trailer carries supplies that search and rescue teams need in the field.

In New Hanover County, between the two agencies, there are 33 people that can be ready to deploy with in 24 hours, according to Wilmington Fire Department Capt. Shannon Provencher. Each regional response team can be ready respond anywhere in the state.

If funding is not supported by the state legislature this year, those with the North Carolina Coalition of Metropolitan Fire Chiefs fear there may not be enough funds to fully support the program, now entering its 14th year. State funding would help replace aging or damaged equipment, store equipment, and provide a “stable” platform for teams to plan for the future.