SFD firefighter sent to VA rescue efforts

By: 
Faith Lifer
Staff Writer

The Mississippi Office of Homeland Security sent 45 members of the Mississippi Task Force to Virginia Tuesday for search and rescue efforts as Tropical Storm Florence drenches the east coast with rain and storm surge.

Of the 45 members, one is from the Starkville Fire Department.

SFD Lt. Brian Arnett received a phone call around 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and by 11 a.m., Arnett was headed to Pulaski, VA with the 44 other members of the MississippiTask Force.

“Within the state of Mississippi, there are four different task forces,” Arnett said. “But when we go out of state, we’re just responding as one task force: the Mississippi Task Force.”

“We’ve been deployed to assist the state of Virginia in any swift water or flood water rescue associated with (Tropical Storm) Florence,” Arnett said of his mission.

The Task Force has been assigned to respond within a five-county area surrounding Pulaski County.

“The area we’re in is expected to have floods due to heavy rain,” Arnett said. “It’s a low line area with rivers and creeks running through it and they were told catastrophic flooding is possible.”

Throughout the week, the Task Force members have worked with local directors and other local swift water teams to prepare for the storm and to create a plan.

A large part of the rescue mission in Pulaski will involve boat rescue, so the Task Force practiced operations in a local lake Wednesday morning.

“We’ve got a lake where we are, and this morning we are practicing our boat operations in a lake— just getting practice in and getting used to working together,” Arnett said.

Pulaski County is also known as the New River Valley, and the New River is expected to contribute to the area flooding.

“The New River that runs in this area will be responsible for a lot of the flooding,” Arnett said. “Parts of (the river) are famous for whitewater rafting already without a flood.”

On Wednesday, Arnett said rain near Pulaski is projected to last through Tuesday.

Florence was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm Friday evening.

The Mississippi Task Force held their last practice runs Saturday morning.

Arnett said the five-county area was under a flash flood watch on Saturday.

“We are being told the water levels in the local rivers will rise approximately 20 feet in the next 24 to 36 hours,” Arnett said. “The area we are in catches all the rain and flood water from the southern areas getting hit by heavy rains now.”

WELL-PREPARED

Arnett said the Mississippi Task Force is well-prepared and well-trained for whatever the five-county area surrounding Pulaski faces.

“This is what we’ve trained for, and this what we’ve prepared for and this is why we go to classes that take us away from our families,” Arnett said.

Becoming a member of the Task Force is self-paced, but Arnett said becoming a fully-trained Task Force member takes around of six years.

The members are also required to attend refresher courses annually.

Task Force members are trained in swift water rescue, dive rescue, rope rescue, trench rescue, structural collapse rescue, confined space rescue, large animal rescue, hazardous material rescue and heavy equipment operation.

Arnett said almost all rescue missions involve hazardous materials rescue, including his current mission in Pulaski.

“In the event of flood water or a storm like this, you’re going to have hazardous materials because there’s going to be chemicals or even the water itself could be polluted,” Arnett said.

Six members of SFD are fully-trained Task Force members.

“SFD is fortunate,” Arnett said. “There are actually six people in SFD who are part of the Task Force. I just happen to be the only one down here.”

Although the training takes firefighters away from their stations, SFD Chief Charles Yarbrough expressed his approval of the Task Force training.

“I support them 100 percent with training,” Yarbrough said. “We support it because of times like this when they’re needed, we want them to be able to go.”

Although the preparedness takes away most of the nerves, anticipation still lingers.

“Probably more than any nervousness or anxiety, it’s just the anticipation of doing it,” Arnett said on Wednesday. “It’s a lot of anticipating to really work hard and represent our departments and the state of Mississippi.”

“You’ve got a group of firemen from all around the state that are dedicated to serving communities, and while it’s not any of our local communities, it is something we’ve prepared for,” Arnett said.

Arnett believes most firefighters feel called to serve.

“It’s what you feel called to do,” Arnett said. “And this is just an opportunity to serve in a wider area.”

The sacrifice of their service is not the work, but being away from home.

“The work itself is not a problem for the people it’s being away from home,” Arnett said. “In our case, we are all men, so you’ve got a bunch of families that are without their husbands and fathers.”

The Task Force was deployed Tuesday, and the deployment could last up to two weeks.

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