Fairfax County Rescue Team Returns Home from Japan Mission

March 21, 2011 - News accounts describe the moon that rose Saturday morning and hung brightly in the sky throughout the night and early morning Sunday as a “Supermoon.” The last time such a distinctive full moon appeared so close to the earth was in 1993, eighteen years ago.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, with the Supermoon high in the sky, I was pleased to welcome home members of our Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team, VATF-1. After spending a week in Japan, the team was ready to return and their families were happy to see them. Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross and I joined family members at the Fire and Rescue Academy on West Ox Road, the headquarters of VATF-1. Among the crowd were lots of little children in pajamas and jackets with their homemade “Welcome Home” signs.

The Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. gave a very moving speech to our team, thanking them for the courageous service to his people. I presented Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki with a Fairfax County lapel pin to signify what will always be a strong connection between Fairfax County and the country of Japan.

Our team completed its mission and returned to Misawa Air Force Base on March 18 to prepare for their return to the U.S. VATF-1 completed its search of central Ofunato on Tuesday, and searched Kamaishi City on Wednesday and Thursday. Tragically, neither VATF-1 nor CATF-1, the Los Angeles based team that joined the Fairfax County team in Japan, found any live victims in either location.

The two teams, the only two in the U.S. qualified for foreign urban search and rescue missions, transferred $145,000 in equipment to the Ofunato Fire Department for use in additional recovery efforts. The equipment includes 4 zodiac boat kits—containing boats, motors, fuel tanks, and paddles—16 kerosene heaters, 160 cots, and 160 sleeping bags.

The team will get some much needed time off before returning to regular duty here in Fairfax County. This time off, like all the work, training and equipment, is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

I continue to offer my condolences and sympathy to the people of Japan in the wake of this terrible tragedy. They will continue to face hardships for a long time, and my thoughts and prayers are with them.

In my remarks Sunday morning, I shared with our USAR Team the good wishes and pride that Byline readers have expressed. I am very proud of our team. I also thank their families for their support of this program. I hope that the world does not soon see another tragedy like the one in Japan, but I know that the members of VATF-1 are always ready to serve.

 Photo courtesy of Jeanne Theismann/The Connection



March 16, 2011 - Last night, I participated in a conference call arranged by our Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department with Chief Joe Knerr, co-head of our Urban Search and Rescue Team, VATF-1, in Japan. I appreciated the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of what is happening on the ground and to thank family members who called in for a family teleconference.

According to Chief Knerr the nature of the devastation in Ofunato has resulted in no live rescues. None the less, his team has maintained good spirits, and they are holding out hope that they will find victims. They recognize that with each passing hour, the likelihood of doing so dwindles.

Unlike in Haiti or in other rescue operations, the destruction in Japan has left very few “survivable voids,” a space created within a collapsed building that contains enough oxygen and room for people to survive. A Tsunami “wipes everything out, and then takes it out to sea,” Joe said on the call.

VATF-1 is stationed in an elementary school 10 miles from the search area. On Tuesday, with a temperature of 23 degrees and a couple of inches of snow on the ground, VATF-1 searched an area of Ofunato two square kilometers in size, and located eight deceased victims.

Our team and other international rescue teams are under the command of local first responders, in our case the Osaka Fire Department, so many of whom have lost so much. Despite the overwhelming devastation that surrounds them, these brave souls have chosen to lead teams of visitors into the wreckage that was once their homes, their schools and their neighborhoods, and search for signs of life in a sea of destruction.

Our team will remain on the ground until they are told by the Japanese leadership to stop. They are constantly monitoring the radiation levels and using every means available to stay informed of what’s happening. The trouble reactors are to their south, and they are monitoring winds to make sure they avoid any potential problems. They’ve been experiencing some small aftershocks on a regular basis, but Joe joked that the last one was not severe enough to wake his team at 3:15 a.m. local time.

My thoughts and prayers continue to go out to the victims and their families as well as the rescue workers and their families back home waiting for their return. I was able to speak to some of the VATF-1 families here in Fairfax who participated in a conference call last night. I shared with them the complements and good wishes I’ve received from readers of this Byline and told them that I understood it was not easy being left behind while their loved ones are so far away going through a very difficult time. I also assured them that the work they are doing makes all of us so proud to call Fairfax County home.



Post from March 15:

March 15 - 2011 - Our VATF-1 team arrived at Sumita, Japan at 6:00 A.M. EDT on Monday, March 14th, and set up its Base of Operations. Being this was night time in Japan, the team was bedded down to rest for the upcoming daytime operations. At 5:15 P.M. EDT on Monday, March 14th, one-half of the team initiated recon operations in the town of Ofunato, and at 7:00 P.M. EDT the set-up of the Base was completed and the remaining team members joined the others in search and rescue efforts. Currently the three Heavy Teams are conducting a grid search of the mission area. Damage is described as severe with large amounts of rubble similar to a hurricane.

Communication within Japan is still limited with our communications with the team limited to satellite phones and some email. The Task Force leaders are working with the local fire service and continuing to formulate their search and rescue plans. The team is continuing to monitor the surrounding conditions in Japan and are reporting no increase in radiation levels at their location. The team members reported some aftershocks with no damage or issues and they remain well rested and in good spirits.

The work our team is doing in Japan, as they have done elsewhere in the world, is remarkable and makes me proud to call Fairfax County home. I will join in the teleconference this evening to hear firsthand reports of what’s happening on the ground in Japan.

VATF-1’s mission is fully funded by the federal government as is the filling of positions left open at home during deployment. Fairfax County benefits from the training and resources gained by participating in the USAID program.

Post from March 14:

CNN Video Report

Slideshow at Departure

Video Explanation of Preparations 

March 14, 2011 – Fairfax County’s federally funded Urban Search and Rescue Team, Virginia Task Force One (VATF-1) has deployed 74 personnel including search and rescue canines, physicians, paramedics, structural engineers, technical search and rescue specialists, hazardous material specialists and other support personnel and approximately 30 tons of equipment as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) response to Japan to assist in the response to the earthquake and Tsunami.

I am so proud of the members of our USAR team for the incredible work they do. My heart goes out to the victims of this terrible tragedy and their families. Fairfax County's largest minority population is our Asian American community, and my thoughts and prayers are with our Japanese American community as they deal with the aftermath of this disaster.

As of Sunday night, our team was at Misawa Air Base with the United Kingdom's Heavy Team as well as the Australian Heavy Team and was preparing to head south to Ofunato, Japan. Ofunato is a seaport town which is 125 square miles in size and is 6 hours south (driving time) with an approximate population of 41,000. The Base of Operations in Ofunato is scheduled to be at Ofunato High School. Team members will be traveling with members of CATF-2, the Los Angeles based USAR team, by ground and by helicopter. Once in Ofunato, VATF-1 and CATF-2 will be under command of the Tokyo Fire Department.

VATF-1 departed Dulles International Airport at 2:00 A.M. on Saturday and arrived at Misawa Air Base in Northern Japan at 1:30 A.M. EST on Sunday. The team traveled through Los Angeles to pick up USAR CATF-2 who traveled with VATF-1 to Japan. VATF-1 and CATF-2 are the only two urban search and rescue teams in the U.S. qualified to respond to a disaster like the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan.

The capabilities of VATF-1 have been expanded on this mission in that this response includes a swift water boat response which includes a deployment of four swift water boats, swift water rescue gear and trained personnel. Many of the Fairfax County technical rescue workers deployed maintain swift water certifications which will aid in their rescue efforts. The team also deployed with cold weather gear due to the wide variance in temperatures in this part of Japan.

As always with this type of deployment, the mission and itinerary are subject to change at any time. USAR will hold nightly teleconferences with the task force leaders and their families while in Japan.

VATF-1’s mission is fully funded by the federal government as is the filling of positions left open at home during deployment. Fairfax County benefits from the training and resources gained by participating in the USAID program.

Below is a map of the team’s arrival point in relation to the epicenter. Check back for updates.






Media Contact:
Clayton Medford





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