SALT LAKE CITY — An elite search and rescue team in Utah was put on alert this week after a tornado blew through Oklahoma on Monday.
The team did not deploy, but similar teams have spent the past few days wading through storm rubble, looking for survivors.
Utah Task Force 1 is one of 28 federal teams with the tools and expertise to save people after major disasters. The task force is made up of firefighters who are used to dealing with difficult situations, and the dogs on the force are highly trained in live recovery.
Gear for all 210 members of the team is ready to load and go. This week, they waited as a back-up team.
"We train and we train and retrain, but when you get there and see the physical horror of what's happened there, it's hard on everyone,” said Bill Brass, program manager of Utah Task Force 1.
They deployed to ground zero after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and to the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
In Oklahoma this week, three teams responded.
"Texas Task Force 1 had cleared 330 structures in a 24-hour period, and that's phenomenal,” Brass said.
They have limited time to save people buried in buildings, he said.
"They go through really quickly. If they make contact with anyone, if survivors are there or they hear voices from anyone, they document all of that and rescue anybody they can immediately,” Brass said.
The teams repeat the search twice, removing the dead after saving the living. All of that work is now complete in Oklahoma.
"We have a lot of technical equipment, and we have the expertise to be able to breach, break and burn through materials that your normal first responders would not be able to,” Brass said.
The team keeps its cache of emergency supplies and equipment in a warehouse in West Jordan. Team members regularly train with the equipment, which is worth $4.5 million. They have everything they need to be self-sufficient for 72 hours during a rescue operation.
The team keeps two 50-foot-long semitrailers ready to go, partially loaded with equipment. The trucks have food and water in the back, as well as some of the team's cutting tools for busting and breaching into concrete and large structures.
Team members' mandate is to be ready to go and out the door in four to six hours. A year ago, when they did a training exercise, they were out the door in four hours and six minutes.
But this team does not deploy often because Utah is geographically isolated.
"We are not on the coast where there are hurricanes,” Brass said. “We don't get very many tornadoes in this area. We are ready to go at any time, and that's the hard part, keeping them always ready. But when nothing happens, it's very frustrating."
Utah Task Force 1 was sent to Logan in 2009 when a mudslide buried a home, killing three people. Despite the few deployments, the program manager is confident in the team's proficiency. In the event of an earthquake, these specialists are the ones Utahns will really count on.
“We do training on a regular basis, and I’ve seen these guys perform in the field,” Brass said, “and I have no doubt they are going to do a great job.”