'It wasn't glorious, but we made a difference'

The Baltimore Sun

With a background in urban search and rescue, Jenny Shilling figured she was a logical choice to take part in the county Department of Fire and Rescue Services' recent mission to aid the people of hurricane-ravaged Louisiana.

Members of the unit - known as USAR - are trained in finding and extricating disaster victims.

After making the 26-hour trip to rural Alexandria, Shilling and the other four members of the second relief unit sent in September by the Department of Fire and Rescue Services immediately worked an 18-hour shift.

"I thought, 'Wow! What did I get myself into?' " said Shilling, the only woman among the eight responders in two groups sent by the county. "But we worked together well, and everything just clicked."

As it turned out, Shilling didn't have to draw on her USAR experience - though she keeps a bag packed at her Elkridge home in case she is called to duty by the Maryland Task Force.

"Most of what we did was what we expected to do - assist with evacuation and transport," said Shilling, a heavy-equipment operator and 18-year veteran of the county fire department. "Nothing we handled was an emergency. It wasn't glorious, but we made a difference."

Shilling and the other members deployed over a three-week period last month as part of the state's five-unit Medical Strike Team were welcomed back at a recent reception by County Executive Ken Ulman and Fire Chief Joseph Herr.

The state's team also consisted of units from Baltimore City and Charles and Harford counties, as well as responders from LifeStar, a private ambulance service. The Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems had requested the team in response to a call for help by the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

Battalion Chief Chuck King and Capt. Raymond Petry, who led the county's two units, introduced a six-minute slide show illustrating the teams' experiences.

"I should point out that at our busiest times, we didn't have a camera in hand," said King, a Glenwood resident and leader of the first team, which arrived in Louisiana before Hurricane Gustav did.

The chief said he and his three-member unit hunkered down in the predawn hours of Sept. 1, along with several hundred first responders, in a building four times the size of the Cow Palace at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.

After pounding the structure with heavy rain, Gustav passed over within several hours with wind speeds of up to 50 mph, he said. Over the course of that day, the storm dumped 19 inches of rain on the area.

"There were very few leaks in the roof, which was amazing in itself, but eventually the concrete floor began leeching water and the ventilation system broke down," King recalled.

The next morning, he moved his team to a hotel, which became home base for the rest of their 12-day stay.

After setting up a field hospital, King's unit spent four days helping the small town of Allen Parish move people to and from hospitals and nursing homes and assisting on 911 emergency calls. Members also distributed food, water and ice.

"It's not the nature of a firefighter to sit by and watch when there's work to be done, no matter what it is," the battalion chief said.

Despite making headway, King called the overall effort in Louisiana disorganized.

"The federal and state governments had the same goal, but they were not working together," he said. "Sometimes, we were given an objective, and the details changed midstream." Finding a place to refuel equipment should not have been the hardship that it was, he said. The unit happened upon a service station owner who had closed down her pumps but had secretly reserved 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel for emergency vehicles. That site became "our big secret," he said. Many road signs were down, so GPS navigation became invaluable as well.

There were also numerous palettes of oxygen tanks, medical supplies and bottled water that had been delivered, but no one had been charged with distributing them.

"It was definitely an interesting experience," said King. "But we took things in as to how to better manage the situation - there's definitely a right way and a wrong way."

King said he believes lessons were learned from the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and that the federal government was not totally reactive this time around. Local residents also obeyed evacuation orders in greater numbers than before, he said.

But one sight was alarming to King - seeing residents attempting to purchase generators after Gustav had hit.

"I know that I, like many people in Howard County, store bottled water, canned goods, flashlights and the like in our basements in case of an emergency - so it's difficult to watch people in a hurricane-stricken state learning that lesson the hard way."

Shilling describes the work as being atypical, but rewarding.

"When the bell goes off here at home, it's typically an emergency, and our adrenaline is pumping," she said. "But we were happy to help those people, and we'd all do it again in a heartbeat."

The responders who accompanied King were Capt. Mike Sharpe, Master Firefighter George Krug and heavy-vehicle operator Will Huber. Other members of Petry's unit, in addition to Shilling, were Capt. Thomas Norman, Lt. Kevin Frizzell, and heavy-vehicle operator Andy Hoffman.

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