New Breed Blunts Edge Of Disasters

Rescue Elite

The Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes. The Malibu and Oakland Hills fires. The Yuba City floods. And now, the El Nio storms.

They're character lines etched into the face of California, telling the history of a place that a top state emergency services official flatly calls "disaster central."

While residents often debate whether it's denial or pluck (or a combination of the two) that keeps them living here, people like Dan Steinhoff make it possible to cope and even feel confident in a territory so regularly on the receiving end of nature's battering ram.

Mr. Steinhoff is part of a new breed of rescue elite, combining an old-fashioned love of adventure and the outdoors with increasingly specialized skills and equipment to save lives in the darkest pockets of a disaster's fury. California is at the vanguard of a nationwide movement among America's fire departments to develop teams that can extract people from the most dangerous situations. And while storms still inflict billions of dollars in damage, these rescuers help keep the human toll down - pulling children from swollen streams and saving homes from brush fires.

Steinhoff himself became a poster boy this week for the El Nio storms that have already claimed at least six lives in the state, bloating rivers, reservoirs and hillsides to capacity. Thigh-deep in mud, Steinhoff directed the dramatic rescue of a horse from a raging creek last Sunday.

Images of his rescue team, clad in kayak helmets and dry suits, played prominently on television and in newspapers and gave the storms an emotional focal point.

"I went into Walgreens and the cashier told me she started crying when she saw the rescue on TV," says Steinhoff. "It was amazing."

But Steinhoff is more than a local hero. He's also a leader of the Contra Costa County's Swift Water Rescue team, just the kind of specialized rescue unit that's increasingly common throughout the state and nation.

Leading the effort to bring state-of-the-art skills to disaster rescue is a joint program by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the states. It has established 27 regional Urban Search and Rescue teams nationwide, eight of them in California.

The plan to establish these sophisticated, multidisciplined strike teams, was jump started by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in central California. Each team is run out of a local fire department but relies on specialists in the community - like doctors, and structural engineers - to give it a full complement of skills. Their job is to respond within hours to major disasters and terrorism, anywhere in the United States. They also can be deployed internationally.

In addition, local agencies such as sheriff's departments, local-emergency agencies, and state-parks services are adding rescue skills at a rapid rate. Yet some of the most dramatic changes are taking place in fire departments, like the one where Steinhoff works in Contra Costa. That department's Swift Water Rescue team was inaugurated in January. The same department expects to make operational soon a confined-space team that will specialize in rescues from small places where workers become injured or trapped.

"I can't believe how sophisticated, how complex, and how coordinated the whole special rescue field has become. These teams are truly the special forces of the fire service," says Mark Ghilarducci, deputy chief of fire and rescue in the California Office of Emergency Services. He estimates that 700 of the roughly 975 California fire departments can do some specialized rescue.

But for all the new skills being taught, this is no classroom job. The culture of the rescuers is "entrepreneurial, open-minded, dedicated, and a little nuts," says Mr. Ghilarducci, himself an experienced wilderness rescuer and part of the team dispatched to Oklahoma City in the wake of the terrorist bombing. "Their motto is 'anywhere, anytime' and they basically never say no."

That can put them in grave jeopardy, without the proper skills. Indeed, the motivation for much of the enhanced training is to make the rescue effort more effective and safer. "When firemen show up, they're going to do something. They can't just watch," says Steinhoff, who acted as an instructor for fellow members of the Swift Water Rescue team. "I wanted to teach them to do something that wouldn't get them in trouble."

Fire departments have traditionally been close-knit fraternities, its members typically former tradesmen or soldiers. Lieutenant Glen Gonzalez of the Oakland Fire Department fits the mold. A former butcher who did construction on the side, he's seen it all during his 12 years in Oakland. He spent 15 days pulling people from the Cypress freeway structure after it collapsed during the Loma Prieta quake. A few years later he was fighting the Oakland Hills fire. And this past week he rescued a woman six months pregnant from an overflowing creek.

But when Mr. Gonzalez looks around his fire station today, he sees expertise that was unthinkable when he joined in 1986. A crane operator, a ropes specialist, a high-angle expert to help rescue people from cliffs or buildings, or someone capable of using a fiber-optic search camera.

And when the rescue deployment is over, his team sits down with a "critical incident stress debriefer" to unlock emotional trauma. "When I joined, it was just 'get used to it, kid,' " he says.

Those in the rescue business are convinced that the new skills help them save more lives, but establishing a statistical baseline is difficult, given the variables involved when trying to compare natural disasters. But there seems little doubt there is more sophisticated training going on.

One of the major swift-water training institutions in California, Rescue 3 International in Elk Grove, says it put 36,000 people through its programs from 1991 through 1997. Nearly one third of them went through in the past 12 months. The major entry point for rescue work remains fire departments, and recruits are still primarily people with a background of physical labor, officials say. What's different is the amount and type of specialized training that firefighters receive.

To hear rescuers describe their work is to hear a kind of cool objectivity, laced with supreme confidence, that would put any victim at ease. "It's just a problem that you need to solve," says Steinhoff. "You start with the easiest solution and just work your way up to whatever works."

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