A hero’s welcome for Orange County’s California Task Force 5 FEMA Search & Rescue

Firefighter and CATF-5 Technical Search Specialist Jeremy Bart is reunited with his family after a 14 day FEMA deployment in Houston, Texas. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)

Firefighter and CATF-5 Technical Search Specialist Jeremy Bart is reunited with his family after a 14 day FEMA deployment in Houston, Texas. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)

California Task Force 5, an elite Orange County FEMA Search and Rescue Unit, returned from a 14-day deployment, where they assisted citizens who were ravaged by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, to a crowd of anxious and proud family, friends and co-workers at the Orange County Fire Authority in Irvine on Thursday.

The 47-member team, including the units two search canines, comprised of OCFA, Anaheim City and Orange Fire Departments had to go through the standard FEMA demobilization process, which includes a physical and debriefing, immediately upon arrival from their 23-straight-hour drive from Texas.

The team had been deployed since Aug. 14, completing over 100 water rescues per day, including over 300 rescues on their first day alone, during 16 hour shifts in flooded downtown Houston.

“Being in the right place at the right time to make a difference is a testament to the training and the support that we get from our department and the support that we get from our citizens,”said CATF-5 Fire Apparatus Engineer and Canine Search Specialist Doug Van Iwaarden.

Van Iwaarden said he and his canine partner, Sadie, put in extremely long hours with the rest of the team in Houston, working in horrible situations, sometimes without a sleeping bag during nights or without food for several days. All of the hard work paid off for the team and the citizens of Houston as California Task Force 5 reported over 1000 people rescued in the city to FEMA during their deployment.

Firefighter/Paramedic and CATF-5 Logistics Specialist Chris Sobiesiak embraces his wife after a safe return home from deployment. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)

Firefighter/Paramedic and CATF-5 Logistics Specialist Chris Sobiesiak embraces his wife after a safe return home from deployment. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)

The well-precisioned California Task Force 5 Search and Rescue Team trains together on a regular basis in confined space rescue, high and low angle rescue, swift-water and various other search and rescue operations.

“They know each other, work with each other, are very in sync with each other, know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and they know what their particular job is on the team, ” said OCFA Police/Fire/EMS Dispatcher Samantha Maria Soto.

Although the team trains for every expected and unexpected scenario they can, there was nothing routine about the water rescues they faced and the damage and destruction Hurricane Harvey caused to the city of Houston.

On one particular rescue at a senior living home, the team actually had to drive their boat inside the facility and up to the second floor stairs where they rescued several elderly people, along with a victim’s pet cat.

“They were going back out of the building and then here comes a Sheriff Deputy with a fawn, so they put the cat, the fawn and the four people they rescued in the boat, ” Soto said.

Cathy Lazar’s husband, Ryan Lazar, is a captain on the Urban Search and Rescue team and has been a medic for the city of Anaheim for 11 years.

“He’s had 12 deployments, but this is his first with the US&R Team,” Lazar said. Although the couple, who have a 2-year-old daughter and another baby on the way, have had experience dealing with time apart from each other in the past, this deployment was different. “We’re used to being on our own for a few days at a time, but two weeks was definitely a long, long stretch for us,” she said.

While many of the rescue teams spouses have had years of experience coping with time away from their loved ones while they are on deployment, the teams children have also had to get used to sharing their real life superhero parents with others in need .

“It’s been kind of weird having him away from home so long and I was nervous for him but I know that this is what he’s been training to do,” said Rayden Offord whose father, Todd Offord, is a member of CATF-5 and an Engineer on Truck 9 out of Mission Viejo-based Station 9 of the OCFA.

The Task Force members also saw their own superheroes in the citizens of Houston who volunteered to participate in many of the rescue efforts.

Firefighter and CATF-5 Hazardous Materials Specialist Obet Martinez answers questions for the media at the OCFA Welcome Home celebration. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)

“One of the things that stood out to me the most about this experience is how willing people were to come together and help,” said Search and Rescue Member Obet Martinez. “I had one guy come up to me who drove 12 hours from Kansas City, Missouri. He said, ‘I have a lifted truck and an air-boat. Where do you want me?’ It was unreal.”

While Hurricane Harvey did inflict unprecedented damage on the city of Houston, in its own way, it may have also helped foster unity in our country, which has seen so much adversity over the past year.

“We might have these borders that we call states and counties but, at the end of the day, were all Americans, and everybody stands up when our nation is in crisis,” said Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer. “The men and women of the Orange County Fire Authority are the best trained in the nation and we had a responsibility and a duty to send them to Texas.” 

The true spirit of America was on full display during the ordeal in Houston.

Ryan Lazar’s voice was full of sentiment when he complimented the collaborative efforts of the Houston community affected by the hurricane.

“If their houses weren’t flooded, they were out helping their neighbors, with their boats, sea doos, and kayaks trying to help the rest of the community out,” he said. “The pride of Texas, true Americans out there. It was impressive to see.”

Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer addresses the Task Force 5 team members, families and staff at the OCFA. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)

Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer addresses the Task Force 5 team members, families and staff at the OCFA. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)

The experience in Houston left a lasting and humbling impression on the search and rescue team and also gave them an increased sense of pride.

“You can’t help but feel proud, not only as a Task Force team member but just for humanity itself, just how everyone was willing to help,” Martinez said. “I’ll never forget the people of Texas and the volunteers who were so willing to put their lives in danger to help a stranger.”

The team will get a required 48 hours off duty before returning back to work on Sunday.

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