TAMPA — Urban Task Force 3, made up of Hillsborough, St. Petersburg and Tampa Fire Rescue teams, are anticipating a call on Friday or Saturday to aid crews already on the scene of the collapsed apartment building in Surfside.
Special Operations Captain Tony Daugherty — one of the task force leaders — said once the expected call comes the crew of 72 people will have three hours to mobilize and depart for the Miami area. They will bring at least a dozen trucks with them and set up a camp at the scene with enough resources to last 72 hours. That includes some trucks packed with pre-prepared meals. Others have beds, and others have showers and bathrooms.
Within hours, the task force can stage a miniature self-sustained village on the scene of disaster.
“It is a very heavy lift,” Hillsborough County spokesman Chris Wilkerson said.
Daugherty, who has worked with the task force since 2001, is ready to go. Mostly, the task force provides aid to areas decimated by hurricanes. They’ve traveled as far as Houston and Biloxi, Miss.
A wing of a 12-story apartment building collapsed about 1:30 a.m. Thursday near Miami Beach. As of Friday morning, the death toll from the collapse had risen to four and more than 150 people remain missing, according to Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.
Daugherty said with every hour that goes by, the survival probability decreases. Videos Thursday morning showed a boy being rescued from the rubble. But it’s unclear how many other people have been dug up. Rescue efforts had to be paused at one point Thursday due to a thunderstorm.
The way the building collapsed reminded members of the task force in Tampa on Friday of the way the World Trade Center fell to the ground on Sept. 11.
While Daugherty said he has helped in collapsed buildings before, he’s never worked a scene quite as devastating as that in Surfside.
That’s why Urban Task Force 3 has a new training facility set up in Tampa to prepare for a situation like this. The location has been open for about five years. Previously, there was a smaller, indoor training facility in the Tampa area.
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The training site is used for all departments within Urban Task Force 3. The urban task force is not the only job for the members. Most work as everyday firefighters the vast majority of the time.
At the special operations training facilities, piles of shipping containers are stacked to create structures resembling buildings. And inside, Daugherty and his team have set up scenarios to represent what a rescue team might find on site.
In one set up of red crates, some firefighter cadets — who would not be traveling to Miami — practiced drills, climbing through windows, and pulling out fake people. Further down the road are tan containers. Some are tilted and filled on the inside with metal slabs meant to create the small spaces teams would climb through.
In those crates, rescue teams climb in from the top, crawl through multiple tight layers working their way down to the bottom where a person awaits. Then, they carry the person back through the rows of fake collapsed floors and out the top.
Other crates have metal wires strewn throughout for crews to climb through. And alongside are large pieces of rock and cement, meant to resemble the pieces crews might have to move to free a person. One slap weighs at least 3,000 pounds, and Daugherty trains his crew to remove it with pulleys and other simple machines.
All the training set-ups are changed frequently. They are meant to resemble what Urban Task Force 3, or another crew, might see in the field.
“We try to learn from the mistakes of others,” Daugherty said.
Daugherty said when the task force is called, the members ignore the titles of which department within Tampa Bay they work for. Though the Hillsborough Fire Rescue team sends only humans through the training course, the Tampa crew has a K-9 unit that trains there, too.
The crew also practices using long, narrow cameras that are placed in drilled-out holes to locate trapped people. Daugherty also showed listening devices that can be placed throughout a rubble site and can detect very small tapping or any sort of noise a trapped person might make.
“If we can hear them, we’re going to get to them,” Daugherty said.