Over the course of 13 days in October 2017, a windswept firestorm tore through more than 195,000 acres of Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties. When finally contained, 5,643 structures had been razed. Before residents could begin to rebuild their lives, the area had to undergo a monumental cleanup task. One so massive in scope that the Federal Emergency Management Agency assigned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with a debris cleanup mission.
In a matter of hours Sacramento District’s Emergency Operations Center kicked the tempo into warp speed, sending out a Debris Planning Response Team to fire-scored sites across Northern California.
Over the next two years, more than 950 Corps employees from both Sacramento District and sister districts across the United States volunteered their skillsets to work with the Emergency Operations Center in support of the California Wildfire Recovery mission.
Volunteers are crucial to missions like these, and since it’s not a matter of if, but when the next disaster will strike, the EOC seeks volunteers for its teams on a recurring basis. To help fill that need, the EOC recently held a Lunch and Learn event designed to both educate and recruit Corps employees interested in joining the ranks of those who have participated in natural disaster response missions.
“Volunteers are the backbone of the Emergency Support Function response. Disasters requiring the strength of the federal government require a massive amount of manpower,” said Josh Jimmerfield, PL84-99 Program Manager. “The Corps’ Emergency Management cadre take the lead, but it’s the park ranger, budget analyst, contract specialist, or any number of USACE staff who volunteer for 30 days of grinding work that make recovery and community rebuilding possible.”
“Volunteers are essential to what we do,” said Jessica Fischer, Sacramento District Readiness Branch chief. “Sacramento is a big district with a big mission, so it has three Planning Response Teams: Debris; Infrastructure Assessment, IA; and Deployable Tactical Operations System, or DTOS.
“The Debris Planning Response Team is what most Corps employees are familiar with and a lot of district employees supported during the 2017 wildfire cleanup,” said Fischer. “Debris teams consist of about 15 people, and they cycle out every 30-45 days, so there are a lot of opportunities for people to participate.”
A deployed Debris Team needs many skillsets, such as mission managers, mission specialists, database managers, administrative assistants, budget analysts, logistics specialists and more. And if going out to the field doesn’t suit you, the EOC also needs help right here in the district office during activations.
“When we activate for Debris, the EOC activates as well,” said Fischer, “So we have positions for people to help in here all the time. Whatever your interest is, on a Debris Team, we can find a place for you.”
The Infrastructure Assessment team is geared more toward engineering and structural work. On this team, volunteers are tasked with going out to assess structures and give them a rating, which is used by FEMA or the state to determine whether the buildings need to be demolished or are safe to enter. IA also includes wastewater, which is often impacted by hurricanes or tornados, so the IA team needs to recruit wastewater and structural engineers.
Sacramento District also has opportunities within the Deployable Tactical Operations System team. The DTOS is essentially a high-tech vehicle, similar in design to an RV, but loaded with radios, TV screens, computers and other hi-tech equipment and is designed to serve as a stand-alone communications hub during emergencies. When needed, the team drives the DTOS out to sites in support of missions such as flood fighting, FEMA response, and more.
“It’s a very important asset for our missions. When communications are down or we are forward-deployed in a hard hit area, the DTOS is hugely important, providing things like communications, computers, and a radio signal if we need it,” said Fischer. “It’s a great opportunity for technical-minded people, but we also need drivers for the vehicle as well.”
While the opportunities to get involved with EOC missions are plentiful, volunteers should be aware from the outset that the emergency mission work schedule is a hefty one. A standard shift is usually a 12-hour day, and that’s for six, or even seven days a week throughout the 30-45 day cycle.
Still, in spite of the long work hours, and possible inconveniences of working in an area that might not have the best accommodations, the great majority of volunteers say it is completely worthwhile.
Sacramento District’s Heather Grommet, who volunteered a total of 20 days in the EOC during the 2017 Wildfire recovery mission, and deployed for another 60 days along the Gulf Coast of Texas during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 (among other missions) said it is worth it.
“I find the ability to assist any community during an emergency to be one of the most rewarding and valuable benefits of my career at USACE,” said Grommet. “To be able to see the direct impact to people, despite the long hours and sometimes stressful travel and work environments, makes it all worth it. I love that when I am working with the Emergency Management community, I learn, and will continue to learn from every day I'm on the mission.”
For those looking to get involved and who would like to “test the waters” of participation without having to fly across the country to some remote location to do so, there is currently a local mission that involves technical monitoring. Starting in January, Sacramento District will have an approximately nine month technical monitoring - hazardous tree removal mission in the Paradise and surrounding areas impacted by the Camp Fire.
This mission involves going out into the field, observing tree removal operations, taking photos, answering questions and reporting back pertinent information. The Emergency Operations Center is looking for volunteers who could deploy for 30-45 days and work 12 hour shifts, approximately 6 days a week.
“This mission is a great opportunity to gain Emergency Management experience and help the communities in our local area,” said Fischer.
For those interested in volunteering for missions or learning more about opportunities with the Emergency Operations Center, contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District at 916-557-5100.