FEMA

Area firefighters and community members were part of the Missouri Task Force 1 (MO-TF1) that helped evacuate and rescue nearly 400 people and many pets in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

The Category 4 hurricane hit the Gulf Coast Friday, Aug. 25.

MO-TF1 is one of 28 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) urban search and rescue task forces in the country. It’s sponsored by the Boone County Fire Protection District.

Task force members from Union include Jeremy Lasswell, Jake Heller, Mark Strubberg and Justin Hidritch, all who are employed by the Union Fire Protection District, as well as Kevin Wissmann and Dale Straatmann.

From the St. Clair Fire Protection, Tim Ware and Billy Williams also participated.

The men served in a variety of roles, including logistics, ground support and as part of the rescue team.

Their deployment to Texas lasted 13 days beginning Aug. 24. The men were a part of a Type III team, which has 35 members and 10 ground support personnel.

“There was a lot of water damage and heavy flooding,” Lasswell said, adding that being a part of the team allowed him an opportunity to help people during their worst times.

“For most people, this is the worst day they’ve experienced, and it was an opportunity to use the skills we’ve learned and to come together to help them out,” he said.

Heller, who has been on two previous MO-TF1 deployments, said helping in Texas was different due to the number of people impacted.

“Houston has a higher population than the entire state of Missouri,” he noted.

Water was coming down so fast that emergency workers couldn’t get it out of the levee reservoirs fast enough, he added.

The area where the team was stationed, near Katy, Texas, was hit with more than 50 inches of rain.

Motivation, Thanks

Members said they were motivated to join the team simply to help others.

“When I started my career in the fire service, I wanted to get a good foundation of fire knowledge before expanding out into a specialty,” Hidritch said. “I was a natural fit for search and rescue and I found it enjoyable from the mental aspect. It’s a mental challenge to solve problems and figure out the best way to help people.”

Team members thanked everyone who made their deployment possible.

“We’re fortunate at Union Fire to have really good support from administration and command staff, who work to get us out the door and take care of daily operations here while we’re out with the force,” Strubberg said, adding that the men’s families also are understanding and take care of everything while they’re away.

“It’s a huge deal for our families,” Lasswell said. “We couldn’t do this without our families being so willing and our (place of employment) working with us. Union Fire has been exceptional in making sure we can attend training and deployments when we need to.”

They also thanked department members who aren’t on the task force for stepping up and backfilling their positions while they were out.

“It wasn’t just us working 20- and 22-hour days,” Heller said. “Everyone stepped up to fill in, and that’s huge.”

In all, through the Union Fire Protection District, eight of 15 paid staff and four volunteers are on the task force. Members are deployed by their availability and as needed for disasters.