Alumni respond to emergencies as FEMA Missouri Task Force 1
While deployed to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, Dave Weber spearheaded the creation of a system that uses information from the GPS devices in each task force member’s cache and pairs it with Google Earth to give a quicker, more streamlined, real-time report to FEMA volunteers on the ground. Read more…
The three look, to the untrained eye, no different than the rest of the first responders training elsewhere in the Boone County Fire Protection District headquarters that morning. But one item in their bag hints at their role on the larger team — a calculator.
The three men and their absent counterparts aren’t firefighters, paramedics or police officers. They’re the men that keep others on the team safe. Five are MU Civil and Environmental Engineering Department graduates, including Landon Bodenschatz (BS CiE ’01), Andy Bonderer (BS CiE ’91), Dan Haid (BS CiE ’04), Kevin Kriete (BS CiE ’93) and Dave Weber (BS CiE ’92). The sixth is a Missouri S&T 2005 civil engineering alumnus, Scott Goforth.
Missouri Task Force 1 is one of 28 task forces around the country that serve as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the three internal teams that make up the Boone County task force contain two engineers each to help assess structural dangers during natural and man-made disasters. Their purpose is to keep their teammates out of harm’s way by assessing the structural integrity of the buildings they may be about to enter. They share with them which walls are safe to knock out in pursuit of survivors, and myriad other engineering-based assessments that can arise in such situations.
“We have a whole bunch of type-A personalities, these knuckle-dragging, concrete-breaking dudes that want to do all this rescue stuff. Somebody has to come in with the perspective to kind of look at the lay of the land and load dynamics and go, ‘Guys, I wouldn’t do that,’” Task Force Leader Doug Westhoff said.
Missouri Task Force 1 was created in the mid-1990s, first deploying to provide aid after severe storms and flooding hit St. Louis in 1998. The unit has been deployed 12 times to large-scale national disasters, beginning with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Missouri Task Force 1 also has been on the scene of multiple hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. Its most recent national deployment came after floods caused severe damage and landslides in Colorado in 2013.
Upon receiving the call to deploy, the deploying members are in Columbia ready to go within four hours. All told, the deploying task force is made up of 80 personnel, which includes two engineers, and has more than 100,000 pounds of equipment, which it transports in several large trailers that stand always ready to deploy. The internal teams are Weber and Kriete on the Red Team, Goforth and Bonderer on the White Team, and Haid and Bodenschatz on the Blue Team. Once the task force arrives at a disaster, they have the ability to work around the clock with the two engineers each working 12 hour shifts.
“I always want to have one of those structural engineers in my hip pocket, because that sets the tone as to how tedious this situation is going to be,” Westhoff said. “How quickly are we going to solve it, or how protracted is this going to be based on the structural challenges that we’re going to be dealing with? But these guys are always ready to go. Even for the federal system, they have to be ready to come in here in just a couple of hours.”
Team members all have full-time jobs and, in many cases, families. And though the task force’s home base is at the Boone County Fire Protection District headquarters, not all of them live in Columbia. Bonderer lives in Fulton, Kriete is from Washington, Mo., and Goforth hails from the St. Louis area, meaning they often have to rush to Columbia before deploying.
The work they do is a far cry from the pen-and-pad calculations from their days at MU. It’s a stressful job to attempt to ensure the safety of others, one where a mistake can be more than costly; it can be fatal.
“It’s not so much will this beam fall down, but how can we get in there and get back out?” Bonderer said. “It’s problem solving on a different level.
“This isn’t getting somebody out from underneath a house. This is Home Depot’s fallen down with those concrete panels, and there’s somebody underneath there.”
So why do they do it — this second job with typically long hours for no pay that can pull them from another job, their families and other obligations at a moment’s notice?
“When you look at community service, this is the apex; this is the ‘it’ of all it,” Bonderer said.
Like any other job, there’s an interview process, and given the stop and go nature of the gig, available slots are filled quickly to ensure maximum readiness. At some point in the process, the rest of the engineers become involved to make sure it’s a good fit personality-wise.
The engineers build camaraderie with their non-engineering teammates, too. But that takes some time. First responders generally are a tight-knit group, and it can be a hard group to crack for outsiders. But proving your worth through your job performance helps, as does having a working knowledge of the requirements of the first responders’ job in order to make practical, applicable assessments.
“You have to be able to relate to everybody,” Haid said. “If we just give them a technical answer of why they can’t go in there, they’re probably just going to ignore you. You have to be able to sell it to them [because they trust you].”
Having a thick skin is paramount.
“We talk to [new applicants] and make sure they’re normal,” Weber said with a laugh. “The culture here is a firefighter-slash-cop-slash-military culture, and if you have someone with very thin skin, it probably wouldn’t work out too well.”
That shared sense of humor helps members cope with working in places with readily-visible devastation. There’s a mental toll to be paid for people trying to work in the aftermath of a Sept. 11, of a Hurricane Katrina, of a town-gutting tornado. But it’s work that absolutely has to be done.
“I’d say the hardest part is when you go, if it’s a real disaster, … coming back and being back to normal and thinking my [full-time] job is a critical thing, and I have to worry about things that really aren’t that critical,” Weber said. “You can easily adjust to crisis because you ramp up. But it’s really hard to get back to normal.”
When you’ve been where Missouri Task Force 1 has been and seen some of the things they’ve seen, you have to wonder why they’d continue with such a demanding gig. But it’s the feeling they get after helping people in dire straits that keeps them coming back.
And getting the chance to make a difference alongside fellow MU alums makes that feeling that much stronger.
“It’s pretty cool in my mind that you can say that the University of Missouri engineering school has produced these guys that have made this commitment at that level,” Bonderer said. “I think it says a lot about the college and the caliber of people they’ve put out there.”
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