Oakland’s Urban Search and Rescue team hadn’t deployed in nine years. But three weeks ago, when Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Robert Lipp answered the call to respond to Hurricane Harvey, they mobilized a team in under four hours.
A team of 72 highly-trained members and an array of vehicles—including two big rigs and three box trucks containing nearly 60,000 pounds of equipment—caravanned to the Texas towns of Katy and Wharton. The search and rescue team, known as California Task Force 4, or CA-TF4, worked in cooperation with local agencies for more than a week, performing rescues, dozens of water evacuations and even cutting fences to free cattle from flooding pastureland.
On September 4, the team was sent home: 45 by plane and the remaining 27 team members by road, driving the convoy back to Oakland.
But Hurricane Irma was making its way towards Florida, and the team knew they could be re-tasked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, the agency responsible for calling CA-TF4 into action.
“We were watching Irma and we knew there was a chance we would go back out in the field. We were on the phone with the trucks every two hours,” said Lipp, who had returned by plane to Oakland. “In Las Cruces, New Mexico, we made the call to turn them around. They drove straight through to Moody Air Force Base, stopping just for fuel and to alternate drivers. It took them two days.”
Once they made it to Florida, the team overnighted with other task forces and their assets, including 35 helicopters that were stored inside the Orlando Convention Center, as the hurricane passed over the state.
On Monday, their convoy headed towards the Florida Keys. According to Lipp, all 80 members of CA-TF4 are currently “doing great” and are working on Sugar Loaf Key performing a “wide area search looking for people who are stranded or in any kind of trouble.”
Lipp, speaking on Tuesday from his base of operations in St. Augustine, Florida, said the team was seeing “lots of wind and water damage,” and defined the team’s objective as “trying to locate people who need assistance. We’ll work through areas and confirm that houses are either empty or that the people in them don’t need help.”
According to the United States Census Bureau website, Irma first made landfall on Cudjoe Key, Florida on Sunday morning as a Category 4 hurricane. FEMA officials called Irma “one of the most powerful Atlantic Hurricanes ever observed” and referred to the storm as “extremely dangerous.”
Irma followed only five days after Harvey, which made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, and left a path of destruction through Texas affecting almost 20 million people, according to the United States Census Bureau. FEMA had more than 1,000 Urban Search and Rescue personnel working to save lives and conducted more than 2,500 rescues in the state.
“More than 12,400 employees from more than 17 federal departments and agencies are working together in support of the ongoing response to damages resulting from Hurricane Harvey and subsequent flooding across Texas and Louisiana,” FEMA officials stated in a press release.
Lipp said he recognized that this situation was unique. “We don’t typically get two calls in a row,” he said.
Three people head up the rescue team’s Tidewater Avenue headquarters back in Oakland: Lipp, who is the group’s program director; retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Maxie Gainey, who served for 30 years and now works as the warehouse specialist; and former bookstore manager and Oakland resident David Boone. Their job is to keep the roster of volunteers and the equipment cache ready at all times. The team roster includes around 200 volunteers, mostly members of Bay Area fire departments, who undergo hundreds of hours of training and drill monthly to maintain readiness.
“The vast majority of the people involved in the task force are full-time firefighters for various agencies,” said Boone, the group’s administrative assistant. “We have a lot of Oakland firefighters, but we have firefighters from all over the greater Bay Area.”
“My impression is that among firefighters this is a pretty prestigious thing to be involved in,” he continued. “There seems to be a lot of interest amongst firefighters to be a part of the team, and amongst the people who are task force members there is a lot of interest in being deployed.”
“We’re all volunteers until there’s a deployment, and then through the Stafford Act we become federal employees. So all that work that we do—coming to drills, training, coming to the warehouse—that’s on our own time, unpaid,” said Michael Miller, a task force leader and retired battalion chief of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department. Miller has been serving on CA-TF4 since 2005 and is acting as the agency and family liaison for the team’s current deployment.
FEMA was born on April 1, 1979, when then-President Jimmy Carter signed the organization into existence. Its mission, according to their website, is “to prepare for, prevent, respond to and recover from disasters.”
The agency established the Urban Search and Rescue System in 1989 to aid in federal disaster response and maintains 28 teams around the country. Eight of those reside in California. One, CA-TF4, is hosted by the Oakland Fire Department.
Gainey, whose full-time job is to keep track of the equipment and its condition, walks around the 32,000 square foot Oakland warehouse that is now mostly empty except for the reserve cache and dozens of personal vehicles—mostly pick-up trucks—of the deployed.
“I’m here day to day, to have this stuff ready,” Gainey said, “keeping things in working order so that when the call is made, all the gear is ready.”
Among the items he helped pack for the team: rescue baskets, ropes, tools, Iridium phones, radios, boats and all-terrain vehicles.
Gainey describes the team’s mood on finding out that they would deploy as “excitement.”
“They wanted to get in and go and help those in need,” he said. “These guys have been waiting to do what they practice so much for everyday. They want to go and help.”
“They do it out of their hearts. This is what they do,” he continued. “They put their lives on the line every day, whether it’s here or abroad to take care of people they don’t even know.”
By the time the team returns to Oakland, they will have logged more than 8,700 miles since their August departure. Lipp, who was demobilized on Wednesday, believes the rest of the team will be working in the keys for at least a few more days before they begin the long journey home.
Lipp teared up at the thought of coming home and getting to see his family. “I am really looking forward to seeing my girls,” he said Wednesday evening as he waited to board his airplane in Atlanta.