First responders with Texas A&M’s Task Forces 1 and 2 are preparing for the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season, which meteorologists expect to be more active than usual.
While the coronavirus pandemic has hindered volunteers’ ability to train together in person, none of the organization’s 750 volunteer members have pulled back on their readiness for deployment, leaders said.
According to Texas Task Force 1 Operations Chief Chuck Jones, volunteers with TX-TF1 typically train for a collective tens of thousands of hours each year. Since Texas entered a state of emergency in March, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the engineers, police officers, firefighters and medical professionals from practicing for urban rescue missions together.
“But,” Jones said, “that doesn’t mean that back at home, [our members’] employers are not training them on a regular basis. Our members have jobs which are normally close to what we have them assigned with on the task force.”
Jones said TX-TF1 has issued a weekly questionnaire to all members, asking whether they are you still deployable. In some instances a volunteer might be sick, or have an employer who recommends staying behind.
“Some fire departments are short-handed because their firefighters are sick,” Jones noted.
Still, as of this month TX-TF1 holds the same membership size as usual, and have not received reports of illness or lack of readiness from anyone, Jones said.
He noted that if TX-TF1 were deployed to provide disaster relief during a storm this year, the risk of contracting coronavirus should not halt that response.
“We have published to our members expectations we have to protect ourselves from the coronavirus, and we are doing what the [Centers for Disease Control] is saying,” he commented.
TX-TF1 has masks available that volunteers can wear if working with a patient in the field, as well as protective clothing. But ultimately, these first responders are resigned to taking some risk.
“Keep in mind there is inherent danger in what we do, in the rescues we perform, like a firefighter going into a burning building,” Jones said.
According to a press release issued by TX-TF1, the two state task forces are preparing for as many as 10 hurricanes in the Atlantic this year from June 1 to Nov. 30, While these members prepare for any storms that may come, TX-TF1 encourages the average Texan to do so as well, and to factor in the coronavirus in their preparations.
Meteorologists with the NOAA Climate Prediction Center said the outlook for an above-normal season is 60% this year.
“As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in a NOAA press release. “Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe.”
Information on how to prepare one’s family for a hurricane, including a disaster kit checklist and family emergency plan, can be found at texastaskforce1.org/resources.
“Social distancing and other CDC guidance to keep you safe from COVID-19 may impact the disaster preparedness plan you had in place, including what is in your go-kit, evacuation routes, shelters and more. With tornado season at its peak, hurricane season around the corner, and flooding, earthquakes and wildfires a risk year-round, it is time to revise and adjust your emergency plan now,” said Carlos Castillo, acting deputy administrator for resilience at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in a press release.
Castillo urged the public to keep COVID-19 in mind when making an emergency plan, as well as downloading the FEMA app to help with planning.
Four members of TX-TF1 have been dispatched to assist in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Jones said. If needed, those individuals’ work could be allocated elsewhere for storm response. The state task forces are funded at the beginning of their fiscal year each August, thus Jones said TX-TF1 and TX-TF2 are not wanting for resources. He noted that he expects continued financial support as September approaches.
“Governor [Greg Abbott] refers to us as his ‘Swiss Army knife,’” Jones said. “He is going to ensure we are ready to respond throughout the state.”