MADISON, Wis. - After traveling thousands of miles for several days, 35 Wisconsin firefighters were back home Wednesday evening.
The firefighters are part of Wisconsin’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, or Task Force 1, a group that responds to rescue missions across the country.
The team was originally activated Sunday afternoon for a 10-day mission to Jacksonville, Fla. The group hit the road Sunday evening and was almost to Jacksonville when the mission was canceled early Tuesday morning.
“We drove straight through, switching drivers every four hours just to get there as fast as possible,” said Jason Griffin, a rescue specialist squad officer for the task force and acting lieutenant for the Beloit Fire Department. “About an hour before we were to arrive to Jacksonville, they found that they didn’t need us anymore and they actually returned us.”
Wisconsin Task Force 1 was sent home because the damage from Hurricane Irma was less severe than expected in the area the group was headed.
“We were pretty upset. We wanted to go down and help as much as possible,” Griffin said.
Even though the team didn’t make it to Florida, the crews actually faced some of Irma’s wrath on the drive down.
“We did drive through Irma when she was a tropical depression,” Griffin said. “We pretty much had rain, heavy downpours, throughout the entire state of Georgia while we were driving down there.”
The group also had a hard time finding places to sleep on the way back.
“All of the hotels in Atlanta, Georgia, from there to Florida, were taken because everybody from Florida was staying in the Georgia area. So we didn’t have any hotels,” Griffin said.
The task force was able to sleep in a fire training center that had beds one night and a hotel another night when they were farther away from the affected area.
Griffin said even though they never made it to Florida, the group still got valuable experience on the drive down and back.
“We learned a lot from just deploying for a long period of time, so that was really a training thing for us and learning how to stop at gas station and just get that rest that we need,” he said.
Seven of the firefighters were from Janesville and three were from Beloit. The other 25 firefighters came from Antigo, Appleton, Chippewa Falls, Green Bay, La Crosse and Oshkosh fire departments.
“To me, any chance that we can send people to assist an area that’s been devastated by a disaster, I think is critical because, I hope it never happens, but we may have an event in Wisconsin that we’ll need help,” Janesville Fire Chief Randy Banker said. “I’m hoping all these states and communities will give us the same care and consideration we gave them.”
Banker said the fire departments will be reimbursed for the people that were deployed and for the people who had to work extra to cover the open shifts.
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