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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, September 14, 2001

Awaiting the word Awaiting the word (September 14, 2001)

Menlo Park's urban rescue team stands by

by Pam Sturner

For the Menlo Park Fire Protection District's urban search-and-rescue team, Tuesday morning began with a phone call most of its members will probably never forget.

As California awoke to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, 62 of the team's 200 members trained in collapsed-building rescue received orders to prepare for a mission to the East Coast.

By Tuesday afternoon, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials had deployed 12 of the nation's 28 urban rescue teams to the disaster scenes, including three from the Los Angeles, Sacramento and Riverside fire departments. Task Force 3, the search-and-rescue team drawn from fire departments in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, remained next in line throughout the week.

Chief Miles Julihn of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District said the team was prepared for a 10-day stint and would carry its own food and water, as well as medical supplies and specialized equipment such as fiber-optic cameras and highly sensitive microphones for searching closed spaces.

John Warren, a battalion chief with the San Mateo Fire Department, anticipated a grueling tour that would draw on the team's entire physical and emotional training. "We're doing what we normally do; it's the magnitude that's different," he said.

"This is exactly the scenario we've trained for: a mass casualty of 50,000," said Daniel Schainholz, a doctor from San Francisco with the state's Disaster Medical Assistance Team also awaiting deployment instructions at the fire station.

While confident of DMAT's procedures and training, he doubted whether anyone could be emotionally prepared for the conditions at the scene. "What happens after we hit the ground? We'll see," he said.

According to Julihn, some of the men who were on call Tuesday also participated in rescue efforts after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, while others were facing their first disaster assignment.

The Rev. Mike Ryan, a chaplain for public safety agencies in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, said lessons learned from the Oklahoma City bombing have changed the way rescuers are taught to handle the stress associated with their work. A major difference in New York and Washington will be the absence of daily debriefings, which Ryan said contributed to the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among rescue workers in Oklahoma City.

Instead, their counterparts today will depend on peers for support in the field and receive a two-hour debriefing by a specially trained psychologist on their return.

As of press time the Menlo Park search-and-rescue team remained on alert.

Noting the New York disaster area is 120 times larger than in the Oklahoma City tragedy, Dave Whitt, a spokesman for the state Department of Emergency Services, said all 28 urban rescue teams will eventually be deployed.

"It's not a matter of if, but when," Whitt said. "The work is too hard, both physically and psychologically, for the teams to be exposed to long term." He estimated that recovery efforts could last two months.


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