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Elizabeth Kreitler and Racker from Virginia Task Force 1 Elizabeth Kreitler, with the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team in Virginia, and Racker, a FEMA certified live human search dog, before boarding a plane for their rescue mission to Haiti on Wednesday Jan. 13, 2010. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Virginia's Task Force 1

Search and rescue team were first on the ground in Haiti

By Nick Berray | January 21 , 2010

Need dogs trained to sniff out live victims amidst rubble? Or rescue workers trained as paramedics with expertise in highly dangerous missions such as extracting people trapped in ditches, holes, or under collapsed buildings?

Then call Virginia's Task Force 1, one of only two nationally designated elite rescue units in the United States. When a massive earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, Task Force 1 was instantly on the job.

"We currently have two teams in Haiti," said Bonnie Tobalske, firefighter, paramedic, and rescue specialist for Virginia Task Force 1. "The teams include rescue dogs, veterinarians (to care for the dogs), and medical doctors (both to protect team members and to help with the crisis). The teams also include building construction specialists, who make judgments about the safety of these damaged buildings."

Created in 1986, Task Force 1 has responded to emergencies in the United States, such as the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

It has deployed all over the world, including rescues at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and natural disasters in Russia, Turkey, South America, and Iran. About 200 specially trained career and volunteer fire and rescue personnel make up this unit. Alongside them are the rescue dogs, brilliant canines that must undergo national-level training to qualify for the group.

Each team, no matter where they are sent, needs to bring its own food, water and gasoline, as well as generators. They don't rely on or use up precious or absent local resources.

"Our guys are able to be self-sustaining for up to 14 days once they hit the ground," Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department Spokesman Dan Schmidt told reporters.

Of the two teams, one is a "heavy" team of 72 that deployed the day after the quake hit. A "medium" team of 42 arrived the next day. These teams are now working together to accomplish a number of tasks, including rescue work and manning command centers.

Although they are employed by Fairfax County in Virginia, Task Force 1 reports to the Federal Government while on assignments at places outside of the state. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) requests their help through the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Only Fairfax County, Virginia, and Los Angeles have rescue teams that are nationally qualified to travel abroad. In the current crisis, however, rescue workers from Texas, Ohio, New York, and Florida are also assisting. International teams from governments all over the world, such as France, Iceland, South Korea, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Nicaragua have also joined in.

For more information on Task Force 1, check out the organization's website.

CRISIS IN HAITI

Check out the Kid Reporters' special report Crisis in Haiti for more information on the country and how to help.

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