UPDATE: The team is no longer needed and will not be sent, according to the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management. The lowered water levels and improving conditions have allowed crews already on the ground to work more efficiently, the department said Wednesday night, meaning the cost of sending the team was not necessary, officials said.
They weren’t sure Wednesday night where they’d be sent or how they’d get there, but 80 Washington rescue workers were set to head east to help with relief efforts after Superstorm Sandy.
“All they said was, ‘Pack your bags, you’re going,’” said Tacoma Fire engine driver Buck Copsey as he helped load supplies into a semi-truck Wednesday.
Washington State Task Force 1 is one of the country’s 28 Federal Emergency Management Agency urban search and rescue teams, and was last deployed after Hurricane Katrina.
The team expected to fly out from Joint-Base Lewis McChord late Wednesday, but organizers hadn’t yet heard if it’d be military or commercial transport, Pierce County Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Sheri Badger said. They still were waiting to hear where the team would be sent.
Members are volunteers and professionals from Pierce and King counties. They come from fire departments, hospitals, law enforcement and public works agencies.
“It’s just a lot of people who have trained a long time,” Copsey said.
The team is usually asked to focus on urban search and rescue, but this time has been asked to bring water rescue resources. That means fitting four flat-bottom boats, motors and other marine supplies into the mix.
Every inch counts as it is when filling the two semis and one box truck the team was set to bring, said Copsey, who will be one of the semi drivers.
Add the water rescue equipment, and that process is even trickier, Copsey said.
“Our load has never been configured to have that in it,” he said. “This is a different gig for us.”
Pierce County sheriff’s Sgt. Trent Stephens, who has one teenage son in New York and another in Philadelphia, was one of those waiting to deploy Wednesday. Both sons are safe, he said.
When the team hits the ground, he’ll be a logistics specialist, helping to coordinate supplies and equipment.
The FEMA teams are important to help relieve first responders, he said, who he imagines have been working 12- to 20-hour shifts.
“No sleep, no nothing,” he said.
The Washington team members likely will be working 12-hour shifts themselves, with two rotations relieving each other.
Stephens had been at the department since Tuesday helping load the trucks, he said.
The team travels with everything it needs to be self-sustaining for two weeks, including food, housing and a physician. It’s possible they’d stay longer with replenished supplies.
“We have a broad range of experience, so when we drop into any situation, we can deploy and do what we need to do immediately,” Stephens said.
On Wednesday, team members were checking into the Department of Emergency Management in Tacoma, where they each have a bin of supplies stored with their name on it.
They aren’t boxes used often.
“We don’t get deployed much up here,” Copsey said. “It has to be a pretty major disaster.”
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268