Helping Hands of the CommunityDec 01, 2017 ● By Lisa Dawson
While most of us watched the news anxiously from afar, Frisco Fire Department Chief Mark Piland began getting requests to assist our Houston neighbors even before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in the middle of the Texas coast on August 25, 2017. Prior to the record rainfall and catastrophic flooding, Chief Piland and his team were en route to Houston with the department’s AmBus, strike teams, trained disaster personnel and a commitment to do whatever it took to save lives and help in whatever way possible during and after Harvey’s rampage.
For years, meteorologists have been warning of an “it is not a matter of if, but when” hurricane scenario for the Texas coast. The last major Texas hurricane was Celia in August 1970. Harvey caused much more devastation. Weather experts have classified Harvey as a 1,000-year flood event, dumping more than 50 inches of rain and sustained winds of 110 miles per hour. It was a rapidly-intensifying storm, growing from a tropical depression to a major hurricane in 40 hours.
The Frisco Fire Department was gearing up to help Houston while Harvey was gaining strength off the coast. “People probably do not realize how far in advance these assets are staged,” says Chief Piland. “We started getting these requests from the Texas Emergency Management State Operations Center (SOC) on August 24, 24-36 hours prior to Harvey making landfall in the US. The federal system calls this ‘leaning forward.’ We are not waiting until the disaster happens before we move down range to help. We are actively preparing beforehand and providing resources where they are needed.”
The first unit to be sent was the department’s multi-patient vehicle or an “AmBus.” The specially-designed bus can transport up to 18 patients and crew members at a time. The bus was sent to San Antonio where it was grouped with other AmBuses from across the state. It was then sent to Corpus Christi to stand by for needed evacuations. It was later moved to Beaumont to assist with a field hospital and emergency evacuations from that region.
In total, more than 45 fire department personnel were sent to Houston and five strike teams were launched to assist Houston with its disaster efforts. Requests for strike teams come from the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System (TIFMAS). Frisco’s Special Operations Chief Shannon Brinton played an integral role in launching the strike forces. “It is a huge coordination piece,” explains Chief Piland. “TIFMAS and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are the two state organizations that coordinate together in these types of disasters.”
Chief Brinton, who has been with the Frisco Fire Department for 18 years, was involved in managing and coordinating the deployment of the teams. “We pushed four strike teams out of Frisco. Some of our team members stayed in actual fire stations in the Houston area and were running 911 calls for them,” he says.
Operational Battalion Chief Jeromy Porter was just one of the many Frisco Fire Department team members in Houston immediately following the storm. He recalls a swift water rescue with another Frisco team member, Josh Clay, the Field Incident Technician. They were travelling to an assignment on Interstate 10 when Chief Porter saw a man in distress on a pontoon boat. “I was looking out my window the entire time we were driving. I saw a guy over in the trees in his boat. We pulled over and I shouted loudly over the sound of the water to ask if he was okay,” says Chief Porter. “He signaled back no. I stopped our task force and told them to get ready for a swift water rescue. They threw a bag to him. He was maybe 100 yards off the road. He grabbed the bag, tied himself off and we got a boat to go into the water. We found a rescue team out of Calif. with two vans pulling jet skis and, luckily, these folks were trained to do this. I asked if they would go into the water. A female rescue swimmer floated over to him, loaded him on the jet ski and hauled him out. After we got him on land, he wanted to know if we were going to get his boat, but he was very thankful.”
Chief Porter says, more than anything, he remembers the volume of water during his seven days in Houston after Harvey. “It was just an incredible amount of water dumped into these areas. The magnitude of the flooding was unbelievable. It was very strange seeing entire buildings under water.”
The department had several units that were deployed in support of Hurricane Harvey. The department sent a high-wheel engine on August 26 that was assigned to the Santa Fe area. It was tasked with high water rescues as Hurricane Harvey continued to dump inches of rain into the area. On August 28, another task force was sent to this area, this time led by Chief Porter. The crew was initially sent to the greater Houston area, but rapidly was transitioned to move east as the storm made a second U.S. landfall on the Texas-Louisiana border. The team was stationed in the Greater Beaumont area for two weeks. The department also sent two personnel to assist with incident command for the region, as a special request from the State Emergency Manager. On August 31, they began replacing crews that were located at various spots within the region. The last crew to return home returned on September 19. In total, the Frisco Fire Department had personnel in place in South Texas from August 24 to September 19. Other city departments also responded to Harvey, including the Frisco Police Department, City Communications and building inspectors, just to name a few.
Chief Piland proudly describes how many members of the department wanted to go to Houston to help. Despite the horrific storm and dangerous conditions, Fire Department members were requesting to help our Houston friends. “The Frisco Fire Department is here to help and is thankful that the city not only allows the department to help, but supports its efforts to do so. Firefighters, by nature, want to help, so it is no surprise we had several people volunteer to go help,” says Captain Kevin Haines, Administrative Services. “It is the spirit of both Texas and the American people to help those in need. The Frisco Fire Department has been meeting this need for years. In the past, it may have been responding to other hurricanes or to the many wildland fires that have ravaged Texas. The department is an active participant in both the North Central Texas Trauma Regional Advisory Council (NCTTRAC) and TIFMAS. Both of these entities helped organize the response to Hurricane Harvey.”
“This is what they train for,” says Chief Piland, referring to his team. “And they are needed. I am very proud of the entire team — the ones who went there and the ones who stayed here.” Captain Haines echoes the chief’s sentiments. When asked why he thinks so many were eager to head straight into the fierce storm and dangerous conditions, instead of staying safe in North Texas, his reply is simple, but poignant: “This is our craft. We just want to practice our craft. It is what we are trained to do.”