Following a disaster, a barking dog, a boat or a helicopter can be the difference between life and death.
Urban Search and Rescue organizations Texas A&M Task Force 1, based in College Station, and Texas Task Force 2 in North Texas provide those services following earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and manmade disasters, both intentional and not.
“We’ve done a lot of rescues, especially in the water group,” Chuck Jones, operations chief for both task forces, said. “The [helicopter] and the boat crews have done a lot of rescues, I mean life or death rescues. If they hadn’t been there, lives would have been lost. I think those are the ones that we look back on and are the most proud of that we were able to help.”
The motto of TX-TF1, Director Jeff Saunders said, is: “Do the most good for the most amount of people in the least amount of time.” That is its focus with every deployment.
TX-TF1 was established in 1997 following the Oklahoma City bombings because it was noted Texas did not have a response team capable of providing assistance if such an incident happened in the state, public information officer and training manager Stephen Bjune said.
Since 1997, the three segments of the Texas A&M Task Force — TX-TF1, TX-TF2 and TX-TF1, Region 3 in South Texas, a division of TX-TF1 — have deployed 182 times, with the majority of responses within the state.
TX-TF1 is the only one of the three that is a federal response team under the Federal Emergency Management Agency and can respond anywhere in the United States or its territories.
Some of the most notable deployments have been to the Aggie Bonfire collapse in 1999, the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Space Shuttle Columbia search in 2003, the West Fertilizer explosion, the Wimberley floods, Houston’s Tax Day floods and Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, Alex, Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence and Michael over the past two decades.
TX-TF1 has responded to more than any other federal task force in the country, Bjune said, noting much of that is because of its response in the state.
Members of the three task force units are volunteers with other jobs, including firefighters, doctors, nurses, structural engineers, canine trainers, professors, law enforcement officers, lawyers and pipeline engineers.
With millions of dollars of equipment, the teams must be ready to deploy within four hours of getting a call.
While many people are part of the teams deployed to disasters, one of the first to search is the K-9 teams.
TX-TF1 Canine Coordinator Christy Bormann and her canine partner Gunny, a 7-year-old German shorthair pointer, respond to search for victims trapped in debris.
The dogs are critical to the mission, Bormann said, because their sense of smell helps find people who need rescuing.
“That sense of smell is able to locate people so much faster than we can,” she said. “If you think about a structure that has collapsed, in order for us to search it for a person who is unconscious or unresponsive, we would have to turn over every portion of that structure to physically search that with our eyes. Smell is able to move around a lot more effectively than our sight could ever hope to do. It can turn corners and crawl through cracks and crevices. And so all [Gunny] has to do is get one sniff of a person to be able to tell me that they’re there.”
To the dogs, she said, the search is like a big game of hide and seek, and as soon as Gunny gets the scent of someone, he barks to alert her.
The situations can be scary, though, Bormann said.
“We love, love, love our partner, but by definition what we’re doing is go into a thing that’s too dangerous,” she said. “So, you just have to kind of lean back on that training level and go we are the best option for somebody that’s in there. That’s tough, I think, but that’s the nature of what we do.”
In addition to their training, she said, Gunny has the ability to get into places humans cannot.
“I can send him into a compromised building. He is a third of my weight, frankly, and four-wheel drive, so he’s distributing that weight differently, so he can crawl through all the stuff that’s going to fall on me or fall because of me with no problems,” Bormann said. “And so once you watch that a couple of times, you’re like, ‘Man, this really works.’ I think it’s really cool because 17 years into this, and I still look at it and go, ‘I don’t know what just happened. It’s magic.’ ”
The moment a dog finds someone, she said, is the most powerful thing.
“I have been doing that for so long, and I have seen what happens to families that don’t have answers,” she said. “They have been looking for a lost person for 20, 30, 50 years, seeing what that does to those families, I would literally do anything in my power to get that answer for them. I can’t change it, but I will do anything to get them that answer.”
When doing live rescues, the team also uses technical search equipment — listening devices and long-barrel cameras — to determine victims’ locations inside buildings and safely to explore the inside of buildings before entering.
A member of TX-TF1 since its start in 1997, Jones said, he has seen it has grown in size and scope, from a small cache of equipment and about 140 members to $7 million cache of equipment and more than 800 members throughout the state.
“I’ve seen us respond to different catastrophes that I really never thought that we would respond to,” he said. “In 1997, I never thought two planes would fly into the World Trade Center [four years later], just was unfathomable. The response to that was humbling, to say the least. The West Fertilizer explosion, you don’t expect that. … The Bastrop fires, going to the Bastrop fires and searching through 2,500 homes that have been burned, just hoping not to find anything — and in the end we didn’t, which we were very happy about that. That was a service we never thought we would do.”
The deployment to New York City following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, is the one Jones looks back on with the most regret, he said, because he wished they could have done more.
The best moments, though, are those when it helps people in some of the worst moments of their lives, when the rescuers drive their boat into a person’s house and rescue them off the top of the refrigerator, and get them to the boat, he said.
“That’s probably the best moment in their life at that instant. Now, it was worse before and it’s going to be worse later, but at least in that moment we’ve done something to make their day a little better for a brief period of time,” he said.
Though he hates to have to respond to disasters, he said, he is proud that people throughout the state care about the task force and trust the members.