Dan Oltrogge and Donna Nemeth serve on one of 17 Incident Manage-ment teams subject to mobil-ization in national disasters. Last month, their team spent three weeks in hurricane-battered Florida.
Oltrogge and park Fire Information Officer Donna Nemeth are among the 60 people on the team, one of two in the southwest and 17 nationwide.
The team’s most recent assignment was a case in point. Summoned to Florida on Sept. 3 to help with recovery efforts following Hurricane Frances, they instead found themselves in the path of Hurricane Ivan and in the midst of the largest recovery effort in the history of the United States.
“Nothing else has happened that was as big as this,” Oltrogge said. “It was bigger than 9-11.”
He and Nemeth should know. Both were on the team when it was called to New York City in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
While the devastation in New York covered a relatively small area, that in the southeast spanned several states and affected millions of people on the most basic levels.
“Their needs were pretty fundamental,” Oltrogge said.”They needed power and water.”
Six national teams and two of the nation’s four area command teams responded, operating out of Atlanta, Ga., under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“An incident has to be large and complex for area command teams to be deployed,” Oltrogge said.
During their 21-day mobilization, the team worked in West Palm Beach for a few days before being moved out of the way of Ivan and to an operational staging area at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
Even 150 miles inland, they felt Ivan’s strength.
“It was more weather than I’ve ever been in,” said Oltrogge, a southwestern native.
There, said Nemeth, they processed thousands of truckloads of emergency supplies – ice, food, water, generators – and routed them to where the items were needed the most.
“We had other complexities,” Oltrogge said. “We were getting 400 trucks a day and these might sit for days. In the meantime we had to support the drivers with food, laundry, showers. It became a little town out there.”
Until Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Incident Management Teams dealt primarily with fires – a role that they still fill. But now teams are called whenever there is a disaster. Oltrogge has been on teams responding to the Oklahoma City bombing, earthquakes in California and the recovery of parts from the Space Shuttle Columbia.
“We respond to any disaster, natural or man-made,” Oltrogge said. ”The process of dealing with a large fire or a hurricane is pretty much the same.”
“We know we’re supporting FEMA as a team,” Nemeth said. “How we do it might shift with every assignment.”
Along with the national, or Type 1 teams, there are also regional Type 2 teams that usually work in their area. Both function in much the same way. To get on a team requires a regimen of course work and experience. Oltrogge said these requirements serve as a natural screening process.
Team members do not have to have a fire or emergency background. For example, Joann Fearon, who is an accountant for the Park Service works on the team and Lita Eversol whose background is in concessions has also served.
Teams can be activated several times a year, on deployments of between two and three weeks. Sometimes, they’re asked to stay longer.
While it’s a difficult job and hard on families and jobs – team members must be able to depart on an assigment, sometimes within hours of receiving a call – it also has its rewards.
“You have to have a passion for the work,” Oltrogge said. “Some of the situations we go into are historic. You’re a part of that. When we go it’s usually a pretty large problem and we have the opportunity to solve or help solve that. There’s a real feeling of accomplishment.”
“You really see the results of your work,” said Nemeth.
The team has a Web site. Visit it at www.fireteam-sw.com/oltrogge.