No rest: Fairfax Co. search and rescue team returns from Harvey, departs for Irma

CHANTILLY, Va. — Hours after returning from Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Fairfax County’s Urban Search & Rescue Team is already on its way to its next disaster: Hurricane Irma.

“Got home about 8 last night, said hello to my wife, and got the call that we’re leaving,” said Lt. Daniel Gajewski, a member of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department team dubbed Virginia Task Force 1.

Battalion Chief Chris Schaff runs the team, and oversaw still-tired but mission-energized team members lining up backpacks and loading equipment onto trucks heading south.

“We’re pulling out for Alabama, and Maxwell Air Force Base,” Schaff said. “Our destination could change” according to orders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as two buses carrying team members and trucks left the fire department facility in a Chantilly industrial park.

It remains unclear where the 80-member team, which includes several specialty resource teams, will assist as Irma barrels toward the United States. The team dispatched for Harvey contained 14 members, specializing in water rescues.

“FEMA will decide, in conjunction with the state requesting help, where we’re needed,” said Schaff. “Whether it’s the water [rescue] resource or HAZMAT (hazardous materials) resource.”

“We also have the ability to put the entire team on a plane and go to the Virgin Islands or any other island, as that need arises,” said Schaff.

“FEMA wants to get ahead of things, so we’re mobilized early,” said Gajewski. “We’ll be sent somewhere to stage and hopefully it’s somewhere close to where (Irma) does hit, where we can act quickly.”

Wednesday morning, Gajewski and other team members hoped to catch up on sleep while riding the bus toward Alabama, knowing that once they arrive, they will likely have little downtime.

The two teams will work 12-hour shifts.

Gajewski said Virginia Task Force 1 is self-sufficient, bringing their own rations and housing.

“Sometimes FEMA can find an expo center where we can put cots in, but worst-case scenario we can set up tents and sleep outside,” Gajewski said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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