Local Fairfax County volunteer firefighters serve on international search and rescue team

This content is sponsored by the Fairfax County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

When a disaster happens in the United States or anywhere around the world, members of the Fairfax County International Urban Search & Rescue Team are ready to jump into action and help people who are in trouble.

The team is recognized as a premier leader in disaster response and the provision of training in catastrophic event mitigation, readiness and recovery.

About 210 trained and equipped personnel are on the team.

“It is truly some of the most meaningful work that we can do to be able to go to another area that has been deeply affected by a hurricane or an earthquake and very quickly help people,” said Jeff Snow, a technical information specialist on the team.

Snow serves as the deputy chief of the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department.

His professional background includes a variety of technical activities, such as software development and data governance, which made him a perfect candidate for the information specialist job he currently has with the search and rescue team.

“While the majority of positions on the team are held by career firefighters, volunteers do hold several different positions,” Snow explained.

How the team saves lives

Anyone can apply to be on the team, but “you will likely need to volunteer for a few years to go through training” before you are accepted, Snow said.

In addition to initial certification training, team personnel attend monthly functional training to maintain their skills.

They conduct two annual “full team” exercises, which include one that is based in a classroom and another that involves a multi-day field exercise simulating a full earthquake response.

The search and rescue team’s primary mission is to respond to natural and man-made disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and terrorist attacks.

They work in close coordination with local, state and federal agencies, offering their expertise to support and enhance the effectiveness of overall disaster response efforts.

When activated to respond, a deploying team is comprised of up to 80 personnel including firefighters and paramedics and highly trained civilians, such as physicians, canine handlers, structural engineers, communications experts and heavy rigging specialists.

Snow’s first deployment with the team was to Turkey in February after a devastating earthquake hit.

“We worked 12 or 14 hour shifts supporting the activities of the team,” Snow said. “It was really a privilege being able to see how hard the Turkish people were working to rescue their own people and how well the teams were able to work together to affect as many rescues as possible.”

The team has extensive deployment experience with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance.

Finding trapped victims

Members of the search and rescue team are equipped with state-of-the-art tools designed to locate, extricate and provide medical care to victims trapped in complex urban environments.

That includes specialized search cameras, listening devices, seismic and acoustic sensors, as well as heavy equipment like concrete cutters and hydraulic jacks.

“The first time you hear another human trapped in a collapsed building, it’s a bit shocking,” said John Morrison, who has been on the team for 20 years.

Morrison is a planning section chief and public information officer on the team, and he also serves as fire chief of the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department.

“To see those rescues through and to help be part of the team that’s saving lives is truly transformative,” Morrison said. “It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

In the aftermath of a disaster, the team’s deployment typically follows a structured approach.

The first phase involves rapid deployment to the affected area, followed by a thorough assessment of the situation to determine the scale and scope of the disaster.

Subsequently, the team begins search and rescue operations, systematically working through affected structures to locate and extract victims.

Morrison encouraged passionate people who are interested in the job to explore the possibility of volunteering, even if they are not yet sure what they want to do professionally.

He first got involved in firefighting when he was just 16-years-old.

“Once you volunteer at a fire department in Fairfax County, there are so many opportunities available to you, whether it be an ambulance driver, a firefighter, a paramedic, or part of the search and rescue team,” Morrison said. “There are so many opportunities available for you to find your passion and go with it.”

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