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Medical Teams International sends disaster dream team to Japan

Three local TVF and R experts lend a hand in relief effort
by: Submitted photo From right, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue Firefighter Robert Petracca, Battalion Chief Ian Yocum and Lt. Jason Morgan work with CRASH employees and volunteers to help survivors pick up the pieces of their lives in the city of Sendai, located just off the coast in Japan. Tsunami waves pounded the city, carrying debris, buildings and vehicles with them.

When a natural or man-made disaster strikes, Medical Teams International knows it can count on Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue to jump into action.

Three members of TVF and R's team recently answered the global health organization's call to help in disaster relief efforts in northeastern Japan following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami on March 11.

Battalion Chief Ian Yocum, Lt. Jason Morgan and Firefighter/Paramedic Robert Petracca returned April 22 from a 10-day deployment to Japan, where they used their expertise to help one of Medical Teams International's partners set up a response management system and guide its crisis relief efforts.

'TVF and R works in the nature of emergencies every day,' said Tammy Teske, MTI's manager of emergency relief. 'In an international disaster - where everything is unknown, resources are hard to find and people are in a state of crisis - they are just a natural fit in operating in that sort of environment.

'We can send a TVF and R team into any sort of disaster, and they will immediately know what to do, how to get it done, what they will need and how to plan for an excellent response.'

While Medical Teams International has raised more than $375,000 for response efforts in Japan, the TVF and R team was the only group of volunteers the organization sent to Japan.

'There was no need for direct medical volunteers, but the TVF and R team filled a gap that no one else could really fill,' Teske said. 'This was a very different assignment from what they have done for us in the past.

'We asked them to come alongside one of our partners and instruct them in how to put together an incident command system similar to what they use in their work.'

Yocum, Morgan and Petracca used their vacation time from the fire district to travel to Japan to help the Christian Relief Assistance, Support and Health network, known as CRASH, in its process to build a new incident command system. The nonprofit plans to organize and bring in 5,000 volunteers by the end of the summer to aid small children and families affected by the disaster that left 400,000 Japanese people homeless.

Their work with the group will ensure that 'everyone is on the same page,' said Yocum, who has volunteered on seven deployments with Medical Teams International.

'Having an incident action plan is how we do our job every day at TVF and R,' he added. 'We have a sound organizational structure that works, and we helped them implement that same system into their organization.'

Once completed, CRASH's new system will outline clear objectives, provide an organizational assignment list and establish a medical plan, communications plan and group assignments. It also will help CRASH ensure its volunteer crews will have everything they need from someone to greet them at the airport in Tokyo to supplies if they get hurt to satellite radios in the field to warn them to evacuate if there is a tsunami threat in the area they are assigned, Petracca said.

'Having a plan in place is the starting point of having anything successful,' Yocum said.

In order to get an understanding of CRASH's work in Japan, the three firefighters drove five hours north from Tokyo to Sendai, the largest city closest to the earthquake's epicenter and one of the most devastated areas. Along the way, they passed one of the compromised nuclear reactors.

They spent time at base camps for CRASH to learn about their operations and took time to assist other volunteers with cleanup and family assistance efforts.

'We gained a new perspective on the magnitude of what the tsunami and earthquake did to these people,' Yocum said. 'They completely changed their towns.

'There's nothing like the hydraulics of water. When the waves came in, they pushed all the buildings, houses, cars and debris into the city. Almost 15,000 people were killed, 14,000 are still missing and 400,000 are homeless - that is the equivalent of our entire population in TVF and R's service area.'

Both Yocum and Petracca said they were amazed by the resiliency of the Japanese people in light of the devastating losses and destruction.

The three firefighters helped families move heavy furniture from their destroyed homes, visited overcrowded evacuation shelters and even helped one elderly man try to restore damaged trees in his yard.

'He took great pride in anything living,' Yocum recalled. 'There was destruction all around him and water that went to the second floor of his home, and the only thing he wanted us to do was try to lift and straighten those trees because they were living.'

After working in the field, they returned to CRASH's headquarters in Tokyo, where they focused on developing an incident command system for the organization.

'This is what we know, this is what we're good at and this was the best way for us to help,' Petracca said.

Even weeks after returning to their duties with the fire district, the team continues to touch base with CRASH to monitor the organization's process in adapting its new management system.

Their guidance was invaluable to MTI and its partnering agency in Japan, Teske said.

'They really are our heroes - the TVF and R members who volunteered with us, their families and colleagues, who at the drop of a hat cover shifts and make it work,' Teske added. 'We're just humbled and amazed that they're willing to sacrifice their time with their families, use their vacation and resources to serve at a moment's notice. And, they serve so humbly, they don't ask for recognition or thanks. We're really blessed to have their partnership.'

TVF and R's team of volunteers say the experience gave them a deeper appreciation for their lives here. It also served as an important reminder.

'What happened there, can certainly happen here,' Yocum said. 'When you see what they are still dealing with, it really hits home the importance of individual preparedness.

'People really need to think about what they will do when a major emergency happens.'

Karen Eubanks, a fire district spokeswoman, agreed.

'For more than 10 years now, TVF and R has been investing in its fire stations and personnel to strengthen our preparedness for a disaster,' Eubanks said. 'We need the community to do its part as well. We need both to make it through a disaster.'

In an effort to encourage individuals and families in the community to prepare for a disaster, the fire district this week launched a 'Take Five to Survive' educational campaign.

'Public surveys list 'lack of time' as the primary reason people cite for not taking steps to prepare themselves and their family for a major emergency,' Eubanks said. 'Rather than viewing emergency preparedness as an insurmountable task, consider what you could accomplish in just five minutes.'

The public is encouraged to download preparedness tips from the Office of Consolidated Emergency Management's website at www.take5tosurvive.com .

Want to help firefighters respond to future calls?

Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue firefighters use their vacation time and own funds to volunteer with Medical Teams International's efforts to train emergency responders in

disaster areas.

To help cover the costs of sending TVF and R teams on future deployment missions, donations can be made to a TVF and R firefighter fund through

www.medicalteams.org .