During one of the darkest periods in American history, the Southwest Area Incident Management Team was in the trenches, providing help through the horror of Sept. 11.
The Southwest Area Incident Management Team poses for a photo with the New York skyline as a backdrop.
Those four-plus weeks spent near the World Trade Center’s “ground zero” will never be forgotten by those on the incident team, named for commander Van Bateman of the U.S. Forest Service. To recognize their heroic efforts, the team last week received the highest award offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an Honor Award.
“It was an honor and a privilege to have had a small part in our nation’s search and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center disaster site in New York City,” Bateman said. “We share this award with our families whose support and understanding makes it possible for us to do our jobs as an incident management team.”
Grand Canyon’s Dan Oltrogge and Donna Nemeth were among those who served with the team on the New York assignment. Kaibab National Forest’s Cathie Schmidlin and George Sheppard were also part of the team.
The awards were announced July 8 at the 56th annual USDA Honor Awards Ceremony in Washington. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman presented them.
Oltrogge currently serves as deputy incident management commander on the Bateman team, which returned a week ago from the Rodeo-Chediski fire in eastern Arizona. In New York last year, Oltrogge was serving as an incident commander trainee.
“The first time I went down to the site, it was surreal,” Oltrogge remembers about the Sept. 11 assignment. “It was almost too much to take in and grasp.”
Oltrogge, who serves as the Branch of Fire and Aviation chief at Grand Canyon, said the team has received quite a bit of recognition for its effort in New York. “Anytime someone says thank you, we appreciate that.”
Nemeth, fire information officer at GCNP, worked on the Bateman team in New York as an information officer along with Kaibab’s Schmidlin. Sheppard was a division group supervisor.
Members of the team were on their way to Albuquerque, N.M., only hours after the World Trade Center was hit by terrorists. By the next morning, they had arrived in New York following transport on a military airplane.
The Bateman team was responsible for supporting the search-and-rescue operation near “ground zero.” A mobilization center was established about three miles from the World Trade Center site to serve as a central location for receiving and distributing incident-related equipment and supplies.
Oltrogge was being trained as an incident commander and the team played a key role in working with the Fire Department of New York.
“We split the team and I took half of the team to the site and worked with FDNY,” Oltrogge said. “We were down there at the incident command post assisting them with planning ... and some logistical needs.”
The incident management plan brought together New York city government with other agencies “to put everybody on the same page,” Oltrogge said. Information was also used to brief New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
“The FDNY is the best in the world at fighting structural fires,” Oltrogge said. “But if it goes on beyond a couple of hours, that’s probably new to them. That’s the main reason we went down there. Incidents with long durations, that’s what we were built to manage.”
The teamwork seen between the Southwest Area Incident Management Team and the Fire Department of New York was responsible for new relationships.
“We’ve made some close ties with FDNY. In fact, in the near future we hope to have them come out with us on a wildland fire to gain a better understanding of how the incident command system works on managing large incidents,” Bateman said.
Oltrogge worked with a deputy chief, assistant chief and deputy commissioner through several phone calls this summer in an attempt to set up a time when FDNY will join the incident team on a wildland fire. Making that partnership happen is even being pushed by the heads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service.
“It would be good for them because they know now they may be faced with something that goes beyond a half-day,” Oltrogge said.
Besides the NPS and Forest Service, including Coconino National Forest, other agencies represented on the team include individuals from the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Arizona State Land Department, City of Flagstaff Fire Department and Central Yavapai Fire District.
This year’s 88 Honor Award winners represented outstanding service in many fields, including stewardship of natural resources, scientific research, disease control, environmental innovations, educational outreach, emergency response to disasters, food safety, farm and food program delivery, trade and export development and rural economic development.
The USDA also honored employees who had performed individual acts of heroism and courage.
“The Honor Awards celebrate the breadth and diversity of our department and also offer a good opportunity to showcase the important work we do in improving people’s lives,” Veneman said. “This past year, particularly following the tragedies of Sept. 11, we saw many examples where USDA employees stepped forward to help their fellow Americans. These honorees and all those recognized through this award program, represent just a small fraction of the many dedicated and hard-working employees at USDA.”
Veneman highlighted the response of USDA employees to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and said their hard work has helped Americans gain a new appreciation for those in public service.
“We are extremely pleased to see this team’s members recognized for their sacrifices and contributions to the recovery efforts following Sept. 11,” said Abel Camarena, deputy regional forester of the Forest Service’s Southwestern Region. “They can be especially proud of answering the nation’s call in a time of dire need for assistance. Their courage is reflective of the commitment and outstanding achievement of the men and women of the Southwest and throughout the government sector who are put to the test daily.”