Vancouver’s heavy urban search and rescue team is ready to leave within a few hours if it is called upon to help areas of the U.S. hit by Hurricane Irma.
“It’s most definitely a possibility,” the team could be deployed, said John Dennis, an assistant chief with Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services.
Officials in Florida and Georgia ordered evacuations for at least 1.4 million people along the southeast coast on Friday as a major Category 4 hurricane headed straight toward Florida. It’s expected to come ashore somewhere south of Miami on Sunday, bringing “life-threatening wind impacts,” according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
Hurricane Irma has killed at least 20 people in the Caribbean — Antigua and Barbuda were particularly hard hit — and left thousands homeless.
It’s the kind of disaster situation where the heavy urban search and rescue team — one of just four in Canada, but the one considered best prepared for international assignments — excels.
The 120-member team includes firefighters, paramedics, police officers, city engineers, geotechnical engineers, structural engineers and search dogs. It has been used to deal with landslides on the North Shore and at Johnson’s Landing, flooding in Alberta and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area.
They have the skills and equipment to find people in collapsed structures, breach, shore, lift and remove structural components, use heavy equipment to remove debris and medically treat and transfer victims.
“There’s many things that we can do,” said Dennis.
The team’s members are always on standby.
“If we got called this morning, we’d be on the road tomorrow,” Dennis said.
In order for the team to head to a disaster, the invitation has to come from the government of the affected area. In the case of Hurricane Irma, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency would contact Public Safety Canada, which would then request that the provincial government activate the team.
“There’s a lot of steps before we get deployed,” Dennis said.
Often, the team will get a heads-up that they will be called upon, which allows them time to start preparing the necessary equipment for the incident. That has not happened yet for Hurricane Irma.
Dennis said two of the team’s members are in Texas, observing the recovery effort after Hurricane Harvey, which killed 20 people and caused devastating floods.
“We haven’t had any other team members go down,” Dennis said. “They invited us to participate as observers and we did send two people, but we didn’t have anybody actively participating in the event.”
Dennis said he suspects Hurricane Harvey has taxed already FEMA’s resources and if a large area of Florida is devastated this weekend, “there definitely could be a request for Canada to participate.”
B.C.’s other search and rescue teams are primarily designed for wilderness, not urban, operations, according to Colin Wiebe, vice-president of the B.C. Search and Rescue Association. They help with local incidents, from ground searches to helping with forest fire evacuations.