Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts: News of Greater Falls Church

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Fairfax County’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Team (VA Task Force #1 or VATF-1) came home safe and sound from Haiti last week. An enthusiastic crowd of family members and friends welcomed the 114-member team, plus several canines, at two ceremonies: one upon landing at Dulles International Airport, and another at the fire academy campus on West Ox Road on Thursday.

The team served its longest rescue deployment ever – more than two weeks – in the tiny island nation of Haiti following the devastating earthquake that destroyed much of the Port au Prince capital region.

Two teams were deployed, first about 70 members, and then, due to widespread damage observed, a second team of about 40 members was requested. The USAR teams are activated at the request of the United States Department of State and its Agency for International Development USAID). VATF-1 was established in 1986 as a domestic and international disaster response resource, and is sponsored by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. Approximately 200 specially trained career and volunteer fire and rescue personnel – including emergency managers and planners, physicians, paramedics, and specialists in structural engineering, heavy rigging, collapse rescue, and hazardous materials – comprise the team. VATF-1 rescued 16 people from the rubble in Haiti, and conducted countless other operations to bring relief to the Haitian people.

USAID pays for all costs and expenses incurred by VATF-1 when members are activated or undergo training. All training, equipment, and personnel costs of VATF-1 are paid for by the federal government on a regular basis. There is no loss in emergency response or service to Fairfax County residents as minimum staffing is required for all apparatus at fire and rescue stations. The Fairfax team and another from Miami-Dade in Florida are considered the premiere urban search and rescue teams in this country. VATF-1 members have responded to the Oklahoma City bombing, natural disasters in Turkey, Iran, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. The team was formerly housed at Jefferson Station #18 in Falls Church, but moved to larger quarters as the team, and its equipment requirements, increased.

The team’s return home to Dulles was pretty spectacular, and aided by superb arrangements by the airport management and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. The chartered Miami Air jet landed at a special cargo ramp in bright winter sunshine, as a brisk late afternoon wind blew. As the plane taxied, it was framed by a water arch sprayed by Dulles Airport fire squads in welcome celebration. A quick 20-minute clearance by Customs officials was very efficient (we were told that the New York team clearance took four hours!), and all team members bounded down the stairs in their blue uniforms with Fairfax and USAID patches on them. After two weeks in 90-plus degree weather in Haiti, the brisk 20-something temperatures were a rude shock! Board Chairman Sharon Bulova and other members of the Board of Supervisors greeted the team leaders with flowers and the obligatory photos, and then everyone joined a lengthy motorcade to the fire academy where a raucous crowd awaited.

At the debriefing that followed, team members rose as one to thank the administrative staff for their help. One VATF-1 member pointed out that, when the USAID call came in, it was the administrative staff’s responsibility to get them (the VATF-1 team) out the door as quickly as possible. Within a matter of hours, all the arrangements were finalized and the team was on its way to Haiti, with barely a ripple in the everyday protection of Fairfax County residents and businesses.

Congratulations, VATF-1, and welcome home!


Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]