By Sandy Alexander
WASHINGTON – When floodwaters from Hurricane Floyd swept through North Carolina in September, Maryland emergency workers with special training in moving-water rescue watched from the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department.
It’s not that the group, which responds to moving-water emergencies on the Potomac River and elsewhere in Montgomery County, didn’t want to go help out in North Carolina. It’s just that nobody asked them.
“Many rescue teams within a reasonable response time sat idle, while federal groups were sent to the flooded areas with little or no training and no water-rescue equipment,” Stephen F. Miller told a House subcommittee Wednesday.
Miller, deputy fire/rescue chief for the Cabin John department, was testifying in support of a proposal that calls for the federal government to train and equip water-rescue teams, like the one in Cabin John and several in California, at the local, state and national levels.
The proposal also urges the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deploy rescue teams before floodwaters hit instead of waiting until after a flood has struck.
The proposal was written last fall by Miller and San Diego Lifeguard Service Lt. Marshall Parks. It was brought to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in October by Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, and Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif.
Morella said that of the nearly 100 Americans who die in floods each year, about 10 percent are emergency personnel attempting a rescue.
Miller said untrained local firefighters and rescue teams often try to improvise water rescues. He said such attempts are “rapidly overwhelmed and seldom pre-deployed” and often end up putting both rescue workers and others in danger.
In some cases, Miller said, FEMA will assign Urban Search and Rescue Teams to respond to floods, even though their training is in collapsed-building rescues.
FEMA official Bruce Baughman agreed that coordinating existing water rescue resources would be an effective and fairly inexpensive activity.
But Baughman, the director of FEMA’s Operations and Planning Division, said it would be easier and cheaper for the states to coordinate flood-rescue efforts among themselves than it would be for FEMA to oversee a national system. He said that would also make more sense than trying to retrain all 27 Urban Search and Rescue teams across the country in flood-rescue techniques.
Baughman said the agency would prefer to work on uniform standards for rescue groups and to identify search and rescue agencies that already have water-rescue skills because of local or state training. He said that would probably cost less than $500,000, but added that there is currently no money budgeted for flood-rescue activities.
“Most of the pieces to this puzzle are on the table,” said Miller. “They need to be organized and joined together in order to resolve this national problem.”