From California To Kathmandu, Task Force 2 Responds To Disasters

From California To Kathmandu, Task Force 2 Responds To Disasters

6:18pm Jun 21, 2015

California's Task Force 2 is ready for anything. As an elite disaster response team based in Los Angeles County, it has to be. But it's not just prepped for disasters at home — it's ready to respond to emergencies halfway around the world as well.

Just days after the devastating April 25 earthquake in Nepal, Task Force 2's firefighters, doctors and engineers were on the ground, helping rescue people.

Vince Beiser traveled with them and wrote about the task force's efforts for The California Sunday Magazine.

"When the biggest disasters hit, when there's something on the level of a Hurricane Katrina or an Asian tsunami or a Nepal earthquake, these guys get called up," Beiser tells NPR's Arun Rath. "And within hours, they're out at the disaster scene, wading through the streets or picking through the rubble and rescuing survivors."


Interview Highlights

Why LA responders are qualified for international missions

If you think about this county, firefighters here have to deal with basically every kind of disaster you can think of. Los Angeles County's 4,000 square miles, we have earthquakes, we have mudslides, we have wildfires. You name it, if it can go wrong, it goes wrong in Los Angeles County. And it goes wrong all the time. So if you're a Los Angeles County firefighter, you've got to be prepared for just about anything.

How Task Force 2 helped in Nepal

There was the main earthquake on April 25, which is what they went out to do. And then there was a big aftershock, a huge aftershock, almost as big as the first earthquake, on May 12th. And by that time, almost all the other international search and rescue teams had gone home. Los Angeles was still there.

So the task force guys literally poked their heads into the rubble and started calling, and they hear somebody calling back. So they get to work crawling on their stomachs with saws, cutting through the stuff they find in their way. There's still aftershocks happening all the time and all that rubble, there's tons and tons of rubble over the top of them, could come down at any minute.

And eventually one guy who's in the tunnel pulls out a chunk of rubble and sees the top of a woman's head. So eventually, step by step, literally brick by brick, they pulled that stuff away, managed to roll that thing off of her, dragged her out and just laid her down on the rubble to start treating her right there in the open air.

Why it makes sense to send U.S. responders around the world

There's the humanitarian aspect of it. There is a real sort of enlightened self-interest piece to it, too ... I mean, this is amazing training for these guys. They train like crazy here all the time, but all of them will tell you, you cannot substitute for real-world training. This is real, actual disasters.

And here in Los Angeles, we know, sooner or later, we're going to get clobbered by a gigantic earthquake. If not here, San Francisco or Seattle, and when that happens, these are the guys who are going to be responding to it.

The other is it's sort of a way of banking international goodwill. We like to think that we're the United States, we can handle anything. But in fact, we've had international search and rescue teams come here before, after Hurricane Katrina and after 9/11. And someday, there's going to be a gigantic disaster here and we're going to want help from abroad. And when that day comes, it's going to be handy to be able to say, "Hey, we helped you back then. It's your turn now."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Task Force 2 is ready for anything. Based in Los Angeles County, they're one of only two official U.S. teams trained to respond immediately to disasters around the world. Vince Beiser wrote about Task Force 2 for California Sunday Magazine.

VINCE BEISER: It's a team made up of mostly firefighters - ordinary sort of workaday firefighters, the guys who show up at traffic accidents and put out grass fires and get cats out of trees - yes, they really do that...

RATH: (Laughter).

BEISER: ...Plus a handful of civilian engineers and civilian doctors. And what happens is when the biggest disasters hit - when there's something on the level of a Hurricane Katrina or an Asian tsunami or a Nepal earthquake - these guys get called up. And within hours, they're out at the disaster scene, wading through the streets or picking through the rubble and rescuing survivors.

RATH: And how did Task Force 2 get to be so good at recovering people from collapsed buildings, from those kinds of situations?

BEISER: So if you think about this county, firefighters here have to deal with basically every kind of disaster you can think of.

RATH: Right.

BEISER: Los Angeles County's 4,000 square miles. We have earthquakes. We have mudslides. We have wildfires. You name it. If it can go wrong, it goes wrong in Los Angeles County, and it goes wrong all the time. So these - if you're a Los Angeles County firefighter, you've got to be prepared for just about anything...

RATH: ...Including a massive earthquake on the other side of the planet. Days after the earthquake in Nepal, California's Task Force 2 was on the ground, helping to rescue people. Vince Beiser went with them. He remembers one rescue, in particular, of a woman trapped in a collapsed building.

BEISER: So this was kind of amazing because there was the main earthquake on April 25, which is what they went out to do. And then there was a big aftershock - a huge aftershock, almost as big as the first earthquake, on May the 12th. And by that time, almost all the other search and rescue teams - international search and rescue teams had gone home. Los Angeles was still there, so the Task Force guys literally poke their heads into the rubble and start calling. And they hear there's somebody - they hear somebody calling back.

So they get to work, crawling on their stomachs with saws, cutting through the stuff they find in their way, right? There's still aftershocks happening all the time. And all of that rubble - there's tons and tons of rubble over the top of them - could come down at any minute. And eventually, one guy who's in the tunnel pulls out a chunk of rubble and sees the top of a woman's head. So eventually, you know, step-by-step, literally brick-by-brick, they pulled that stuff away, managed to roll the thing off of her and dragged her out and just laid her down on the rubble to start treating her right there in the open air.

RATH: Wow. Now, there's an obvious humanitarian reason for doing this, but setting that aside for a moment, why do this? Why take our own first responders, you know, where we might need them and send them halfway around the world, expending all that time and resources and even risking their lives?

BEISER: Right. That's a good question, and a lot of people do ask that. You know, as you said, there's the humanitarian aspect of it. There is a real sort of enlightened self-interest piece to it, too. One is training. I mean, this is amazing training for these guys. They train like crazy here all the time, but you cannot substitute. All of them will tell you can't substitute for real-world training. This is real, actual disasters. And here in Los Angeles, we know, sooner or later, we're going to get clobbered by a gigantic earthquake - and if not here, San Francisco or Seattle. And when that happens, these are the guys who are going to be responding to it.

The other is it's sort of a way of banking international goodwill. We like to think that, you know, we're the United States. We can handle anything. But in fact, we've had - international search and rescue teams have come here before, after Hurricane Katrina and after 9-11. And someday, there's going to be a gigantic disaster here where we're going to want help from abroad. And when that day comes, it's going to be handy to be able to say, hey, we helped you back then. It's your turn now.

RATH: Vince Beiser reported this week on California's Task Force 2, disaster response team. You can read his article in California Sunday Magazine. Vince, thanks very much.

BEISER: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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