Even as much of South Florida finally exhaled in relief at Hurricane Dorian’s northward projection, first responders did the opposite: They met together at MMC to ready themselves for the worst and wait on deployment orders.
Some 300 members of federal and municipal teams arrived Monday to set up in the GC ballrooms in anticipation of their next move. More than 50 emergency and auxiliary vehicles—fire engines as well as semis and other trucks hauling thousands of pounds of supplies, tools and equipment—filled a parking lot off 107thAvenue.
Folks representing Lee and Charlotte Counties and the City of Sarasota joined federal personnel as the storm continued to churn over the Bahamas. Even as hearts broke for the island, the assembled firefighters, EMTs and other professionals understood they could be called upon at any moment to help out in Florida or elsewhere.
“If this runs up the coast, we might chase it,” said Brent Althouse, a battalion chief with Estero Fire Rescue in Lee County, who volunteered for the extra duty and is serving in a leadership capacity. “It’s just whatever our bosses tell us to do. We’re just in a holding pattern right now.”
Having left behind family and not sure when they might return home, the crews are ready for anything, says Will Schreiner, a battalion chief with Sarasota County Fire Department, who adds that handling emergencies is nothing new for the crews.
“This is just ramped up to a state and national level. We do these same kind of missions, same kind of activities on a daily basis all the time.”
Those activities include handling problems such as fires, gas leaks, medical calls, car accidents and electrocutions. The difference during a hurricane is the number of such emergencies that take place. Last year during Hurricane Michael, for example, some of the team members headed to the Panhandle to help local departments there with thousands of 911 calls.
Standing by as Hurricane Dorian made its slow approach toward the United States, the teams spent the night on cots in the campus ballrooms and Faculty Club. The 8thStreet Campus Kitchen provided meals, and even President Mark B. Rosenberg came out to meet with the crews.
“We’re so proud at our FIU to host them and make them comfortable,” Rosenberg says in a video he recorded at the scene. “We appreciate their service to our country. We appreciate their service to our community.”
The air-conditioned accommodations and warm welcome took some of the men by surprise. “This is the Hilton,” joked Althouse when he recalled conditions his guys have experienced in the past.
Schreiner agreed. “This whole thing has been wonderful. I was expecting to be in a parking lot and sitting in tents. For us, this was above and beyond.”
That kind of hospitality makes up for not always knowing when they will next get a hot meal or a decent place to lie down. Many of the guys remember tough days in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael and 2017’s Hurricane Irma. They found themselves sleeping outdoors in tents or, in the worst case, in their trucks. Military-style MREs became the backup provisions.
Those challenging times are all in a day’s work, the men say, and lessons learned in the line of duty only make them stronger. “What helped us was Irma and Michael to prepare to get to where we’re at now,” Althouse says, “because those were some storms that just caught us totally off guard.” Hurricane Irma, he explains, went straight through Lee County, giving emergency personnel there a chance to put their training into action.
And while the average person runs from such disasters, these guys embrace them.
"I’ve always been the person who wanted to help someone else,” says James Hayden, operations chief for the City of Fort Myers Fire Department. “Opportunities like this give you the knowledge and the skill set to go and even broaden your horizons. I just keep exposing myself to things that I’m not comfortable with and then, at the end of it, you just learn something."