By Kathe M. Conlon, BSN, RN, CEM, MSHS
As an RN and community educator for The Burn Center at Saint Barnabas in Livingston, N.J., some of my professional responsibilities include training and educating firefighter and emergency medical services. In 1996, the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management was putting together a new urban search and rescue team that I was asked to join. I was honored and excited, but I didn’t see how I could possibly make much of a contribution. After all, I worked in a hospital setting, not on a rubble pile. I could care for patients, but I knew nothing about search and rescue efforts.
Modeled after national USAR teams, New Jersey Task Force One’s mission is to search for and rescue victims injured in a disaster. When buildings collapse, when flood waters wash out communities or when people find themselves stranded and in need of rescue, NJ-TF1 is there to help.
More than 200 members — mostly firefighters with expertise in structural collapse, confined space, trench or high-angle rope rescue, hazardous materials, canine and technical search — volunteer their time. The team has several components, each one based upon specific areas of expertise such as planning, logistics or communications. The health and welfare of team members and victims are the responsibility of the medical component, where I serve as senior nurse logistics, coordinating the medical and pharmaceutical cache.
Disaster often strikes without warning so team members are required to keep bags packed and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. We must be self-sufficient. In addition to bringing any specialized equipment needed to locate and remove victims, we travel with our own food, water, housing (including tents, cots and showers) and medical supplies that should last for at least 72 hours.
Because of the complex and dangerous nature of search and rescue, NJ-TF1 continually trains and training must always be executed as if it were the real thing. The team uses a training field designed to replicate, as much as possible, many of the real world situations we are likely to encounter. A rubble pile soars several feet high, complete with tunnels and confined spaces. It is filled with sharp objects and broken concrete and debris, simulating a building collapse. A train car is tilted at a 45-degree angle as if it had just derailed, and plane fuselage and other hazards are scattered about. Training exercises include set-up and breakdown of a base camp, including a field hospital. Despite the precarious nature of this work, safety is always a priority, especially for the medical group.
Members are activated by pager, with up to two hours to respond from anywhere in the state. Upon arrival at our home base, medical specialists prescreen everyone, checking vital signs to establish a base line and evaluate overall health. Since this is a training exercise, the team deploys to our training field and simulates intelligence briefings, identifies potential hazards to consider where victims might be trapped, develops a course of action and begins operations. Once located, prestaged victims have to be stabilized and removed by rescue personnel, all under the watchful eyes of medical specialists. The team usually operates on two 12-hour shifts, with the first shift going to work upon arrival at an incident, while the second shift establishes a base of operations and gets some rest in preparation for the next shift.
One unique characteristic of NJ-TF1 is that medical and rescue teams train together. Unlike other teams, medical personnel actually accompany rescue squads into collapse zones. They work side by side to begin treatment, and then figure out the best way to remove victims from highly unstable environments without causing more injury. Sometimes the quickest way to get someone out may not be the best way medically. For example, lifting a piece of heavy concrete quickly frees a trapped victim; however, it simultaneously puts them at risk for crush injury, where a build-up of toxins floods the bloodstream once the weight is lifted. Even without these concerns, sometimes simply removing victims presents other challenges. The team must take into account intravenous lines, splints, cervical stabilization and oxygen therapy when pulling someone out of a small void. In addition to a strong clinical skill set, medical specialists must learn how to operate rescue tools and work while wearing self-contained breathing apparatus in compliance with federal requirements to enter and function in such hazardous environments.
When I first joined the task force, I was the only woman and nurse. Today, more than a third of the team is female, and there are several nurses who, along with physicians and paramedics, make up the 20-member medical component.
Often, I am asked why I volunteer and leave my family and my work on a moment’s notice, sleep in a tent and operate in austere environments under extremely precarious conditions to care for disaster victims. The answer is simple: It is an honor and a privilege to work with the courageous men and women of NJ-TF1, and to be able to make even the smallest difference in someone’s life at a time when they are most vulnerable and in need of help.
Kathe M. Conlon, BSN, RN, CEM, MSHS is director of Burn Programs at The Burn Center at Saint Barnabas in Livingston, N.J. She is a charter member of New Jersey Task Force One, serving as senior nurse logistics of the medical component.
More on New Jersey Task Force One:
Modeled after national USAR teams, the mission of the NJ-TF1 to provide advanced technical search and rescue capabilities to victims trapped or entombed in structurally collapsed buildings or injured in a disaster. NJ-TF1 members pledge to provide efficient and effective rescue technologies in a planned and measured response system that mirrors the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s guidelines on urban search and rescue and the appropriate National Fire Protection Association standards. The members of NJ-TF1 maintain their skills and abilities in technical rescue training that require deployments to natural or manmade disasters, hurricanes, floods, conflagrations, explosions, earthquakes or incidents involving weapons of mass destruction that are beyond the capability of local emergency services.