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FEMA volunteer Shane Hennessey: Helping others when they need it most

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sarah Ferdico, Communications

Shane Hennessey, PEIn times of weather disasters, as seen recently in Moore, Oklahoma, or acts of terrorism, Olsson structural engineer Shane Hennessey is ready to help. Since 2001, Shane has volunteered his time and structural engineering expertise to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with urban search and rescue efforts. While he was not deployed as part of Moore’s recovery efforts, Shane has previously traveled to devastated areas to assist those whose livelihoods have been shattered.

“When our task force deploys, we carry a tremendous amount of personal risk due to the dangerous situations we are placed into,” Shane said. “But our job is to save lives under the worst conditions possible.”

Background on Urban Search and Rescue

In the late 1980s, following a series of severe earthquakes in California, Mexico, and other locations throughout the world, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) determined that a significant deficiency existed in the nation’s ability to respond to structural collapses in heavy steel and concrete construction. As a result, FEMA developed the concept of an “Urban Search and Rescue System,” which was rooted in a response mentality directed at natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. With the advent of Oklahoma City and the World Trade Centers, the Urban Search and Rescue System found itself at the forefront of the federal government’s response to terrorism as well.

The National Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Response System is managed by FEMA within the Department of Homeland Security. Within the system are 28 US&R task forces. Each task force is sponsored by a local fire department. Nebraska Task Force 1’s (NETF-1) sponsoring agency is the Lincoln Fire Department, with a cooperative agreement with the Omaha Fire Department. They are under contract with FEMA and are made available for response to catastrophic events involving the collapse of heavy steel and concrete construction throughout the United States and its territories.

Upon a federal deployment authorized by a Presidential Disaster Declaration, a US&R task force deploys either a Type 1 or a Type 3 team. A Type 1 team includes 70 highly trained personnel, four search dogs, and ground support personnel. The 70 personnel include rescue, logistics, and communications specialists; emergency physicians; and structural engineers. Other personnel include hazardous materials technicians, management personnel, safety personnel, heavy equipment operators, technical information specialists, and planning specialists.

The NETF-1

Shane is a member of NETF-1. Under agreement with FEMA, each task force must be staffed three deep in each of the 70 positions to ensure around the clock availability of all specialty positions. Therefore, each task force maintains roster strength of at least 210 specialists. In NETF-1, Shane said three separate teams (Red, White, and Blue) rotate each month. Six structural engineers are on the team – two deploy at any one time.

“We perform search and rescue operations in heavy construction environments (such as steel and concrete) that require a particularly high level of expertise coupled with very sophisticated and expensive search, rescue, and support equipment,” Shane said. “We will also respond to events that receive a Presidential Disaster Declaration or that are classified as a National Special Security Event. These events include such things as a presidential inauguration, Olympics, or other events of national or international significance deemed by the Department of Homeland Security to be a potential target for terrorism.”

US&R Equipment

The types of tools the NETF-1 takes with them to disaster areas is impressive. Shane said the search and rescue equipment contained within the task force consists of fiber-optic cameras, seismic listening devices, concrete cutting chain saws, and Exothermic and Petrogen torches to cut heavy steel beams. Other equipment includes a complete communications system (including satellite phones), a complete weapons of mass destruction protection unit, a structural engineering unit, and a complete emergency medical unit. Shane said the equipment cache weighs more than 100,000 pounds and requires three tractor-trailers to transport the massive equipment and logistical support supplies. All of the equipment is worth around $3.25 million.

Volunteering Roots

When Shane was in high school, he taught CPR and First Aid for the American Red Cross. Upon attending Iowa State, he undertook Emergency Medical Technician training and worked on the rescue squads while attending classes. When he returned to Nebraska, Shane joined a volunteer fire department and worked as a firefighter/EMT while finishing up his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. 

After graduating college and moving to Omaha, Shane said he wanted to continue working in emergency response. A friend on the fire department told him about FEMA’s US&R Program. Shane applied and was accepted to the task force during the fall of 2001. He was going through training when the World Trade Centers were hit on September 11.

Deploying for FEMA

Shane said that, when his unit receives a presidential activation order, members of his unit become federal employees during the duration of the deployment, much like the National Guard. The first deployment Shane went to was the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. Since then, he said, the most notable deployments have been to the Gulf Coast for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and to Greensburg, Kansas, in 2007 following the tornado that destroyed the city. Shane said there have been several other pre-deployments in preparation for hurricane landfalls but nothing as significant as Katrina. He said the teams are capable of working 24 hours a day for two weeks straight, which is typically the maximum length of deployment. After that, a relief team is brought in.

Responding to the Moore Tornado

Shane said he first heard about the severe Oklahoma weather when reports started hitting the wires late afternoon on May 20 about the Oklahoma City tornado and that two schools were destroyed.

“I received a call about 5:00 p.m., letting me know that FEMA was starting to call up task forces,” Shane said. “The activation order was received around 7:00 p.m. that night. Our task force was deployed, but my team was not up in the rotation cycle, so two other engineers on the team deployed. The teams that were deployed were mobilized and in-route by 11:00 p.m. that same night. They drove straight to Oklahoma City and started performing search and rescue operations.”

Shane said FEMA ultimately deployed three Type 1 task forces to Oklahoma City, resulting in 210 federal search and rescue members on the ground for three days.

Preparing to Deploy

To prepare himself for the rigors of disaster deployments, Shane said he lifts weights and runs regularly to stay in physical shape.

“Mentally, I am able to compartmentalize my emotions to focus on the tasks at hand during operational periods,” Shane said. “We generally do not have time to think about family, things we may have seen, and the like until after our operational period is over. Returning from a deployment can sometimes be challenging due to the constant physical and emotional demands.

“The reason I continue to volunteer and put myself in harm’s way, given that I have a wife and four young kids, is a great sense of pride, honor, and sense of doing something greater than myself.”

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