Firefighters searched through piles of rubble, a collapsed garage and an unsteady apartment building after a mock tornado Tuesday at the training grounds of the Bluffton Township Fire District.
It was the first full-scale disaster training exercise to test the year-old Hilton Head/Bluffton Urban Search & Rescue Team, one of four regional squads in the state. In the event of a real disaster, the 28 firefighters from Bluffton and Hilton Head Island could be deployed anywhere in the country to comb the damage for victims.
The day began early, with a reconnaissance team sent from the island to Ulmer Road to assess the four scenarios, props made out of wooden pallets, shipping containers and other materials. The team prioritized them, based on which had the most seriously injured victims.
The training extended late into the evening. Crews had to shore up the faux apartment complex so it was stable enough for them to safely enter with special cameras and a dog to find trapped victims.
Inside a command post tent, Pat Standish, a captain with Hilton Head, organized the various squads, gathering initial information about their plan of attack and then debriefing them after they had accomplished their task. He took meticulous notes on federal forms. If the tornado were real, those forms would be critical to chronicle the event, direct families to the appropriate hospital and help them get financial reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"It's gone very well," said Hilton Head Lt. Jason Walters, coordinator of the regional team and a task force leader of the state team. "We have training on a monthly basis, but that's just for individual skills like (stabilizing) the side of a building or cutting through concrete. This is the first time we've mobilized the whole team."
The Hilton Head/Bluffton Urban Search & Rescue Team is expected to be at the scene of a disaster in its region and ready to go within three to four hours. It would likely be supplemented by and then absorbed into a state team based in Columbia hours after that.
Regional units are designed to be completely self-sufficient for 12 to 24 hours. The state team can survive without outside supplies or resources for up to 14 days, said Walters.
So far, the Hilton Head/Bluffton team hasn't been called to action. They have been put on standby several times.
"The idea behind the regional teams is they're like the first wave," said Walters. "It takes us six hours to get the state team mobilized and on the road. We can have this team there working long before that."
That's especially valuable along the hurricane vulnerable coast.