FEMA mobilizes task force to assist New York in World Trade Center disaster
Cory Matthews, 31, waited last night in College Station, TX, with his team members for word when a military transport would be ready to take him and other members of Texas Task Force One to New York to assist with rescue and recovery in connection with the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 by two hijacked jetliners. The Texas task force is one of nearly 30 such task forces coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A paramedic who has been with the Bryan, TX, Fire Department for seven years, Matthews is the communications specialist for the 66-member task force mobilized from local public safety agencies by FEMA.
“Everyone has a hand-held radio. We can set up our own mobile repeaters, two per team, that extend the range. We usually use VHF, but we also have hand-helds in other land mobile bands and in the airband so we can talk with local agencies that might not be in UHF band,” Matthews said.
Part of Matthews’ responsibility includes setting up a wireless LAN to connect the task force’s computers for internal communications. The task force travels with 78,000 pounds of equipment. Matthews said that, where power is available, his team could plug in its communications equipment, erect 35-foot masts for the 40W repeaters and be ready in 10 minutes
For interoperability with other agencies, Matthews uses a computer to program frequencies in the task force’s radios. But if other agencies are using trunked radio systems, that’s a problem, he said.
“We would have to have a liaison from the local agency in our command post to direct communications to agencies with trunked systems,” he said. “We do have 800MHz scanners to listen, but we can’t talk without a liaison.”
Matthews explained that each state has a process for calling in task force assets when its local units are overwhelmed. He said that if the state is overwhelmed, they call FEMA, which in turn mobilizes urban search and rescue task forces.
“The task forces are given an equipment list by FEMA so all of the task forces have the same type of equipment and their radios operate on the same frequency bands,” he said.
Other task force members specialize in rescue, planning, medical service, search dog handling and technical searching with listening devices and cameras to see in small voids. Task force members are trained in handling hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction. They are trained in breaching and breaking, in lifting and moving, and in shoring weakened structures, in addition to their specialized training.
Only a few members of the task force work full time for FEMA. Most are full-time firefighters in local jurisdictions. The canine corps has its own group. Texas A&M, through its Texas Engineering Extension Service, sponsors the task force.
“Radio communications is important in any type of operation. Where you need help, for example if you’ve been trapped, you can call for help. It also makes getting other assets to your location quicker. It’s like in anything else, communications is key to making things go smoothly,” Matthews said.