At 0630 it was 19 degrees with the wind chill peeling an additional five degrees off of that. The forecast was calling for light snow. It was still dark. Civil twilight wasn’t for another hour and the prospects of the temperature climbing to anything tolerable were remote, at best.
That’s when the dispatch message went out to members of the Montgomery County CERT Go-Team.
MCCERT Deployment, Building Fire. This is NOT a drill.
Rally point at Brown Station Elementary School, 851 Quince Orchard Blvd, Gaithersburg, MD 20878
Reply ONLY if able to arrive by 0800 & deploy immediately.
I had been working on the logistics of this unplanned deployment since just before 0600 and I had only slightly more information than what the team now had in their inboxes. I knew that there was a residential fire in Gaithersburg and that a temporary shelter had been established at Brown Station. I knew that the call to deploy the team had come directly from Division Chief Hinde and the request was to support MCFRS by providing survivor assistance so that the frontline units could get back in service. I had no idea what “survivor assistance” would entail for this event. I had no idea how many survivors there were. Or how many there weren’t.
For all of the information I didn’t have, the team had less and yet nearly two dozen members of the Go-Team grabbed their bags, ignored the weather report, and started arriving at the elementary school just after sun-up. By 0800 we had a team assembled and a mission defined by OEMHS and MCFRS: Escorting survivors back into their condos for brief periods to gather whatever essential items they could salvage: medication, documents, car keys, clothes, etc. Residents had 15 minutes per unit.
Our number one priority was a diabetic oncology patient who desperately needed her medication. Two Go-Team members formed Team Alpha and met with the resident to introduce themselves, explain the situation, and assure her that we’d get her into her unit the second we were cleared, but that we had to wait for the investigators to finish determining the cause of the blaze. While we were waiting, team member Dan Hennessey led a site survey to familiarize the team with the location and terrain of the area of operation and to see the damage from the exterior. The fire marshal gave Dan an interior tour of the two heavily-damaged buildings, after which Dan returned to the command center to do a knowledge transfer on what he learned and to inform our team as to what to expect upon gaining entry. After Dan’s briefing, we made adjustments to the plan and team assignments and finalized the approach for the systematic, sequential clearing of four residential buildings starting with 880 and moving to 882, 884, and 886.
At approximately 1000 hours, certain residents were cleared for escorted access into 882. We immediately threw away our good plan when residents began to reenter the other three buildings at the same time. A quick reworking of the plan (again!) and the teams set out to secure four buildings, provide escorts, and inform residents of the overall status of the operation as relayed by OEMHS and MCFRS.
The next few hours were pretty uneventful as the five teams dutifully completed their mission by helping residents claim their essential belongings. This was one of the most professional executions I’ve seen by Montgomery County CERT and I can’t say enough good things about the men and women who came out on that cold morning to assist the community. The compassion and willingness to do whatever it took to help their neighbors in need was amazing and it did not go unnoticed. I personally received thank yous to pass along to the team from OEMHS, MCFRS, the fire inspector, the City of Gaithersburg, and Gaithersburg Police.
It turns out that building 880 and 882 were a total loss and have been condemned, but the efforts of the Montgomery County Community Emergency Response Team helped make a tragic experience a little less unpleasant for all of those involved, and really showed that Montgomery County CERT, as an organization, has the professionalism and compassion to step up and help those in need, whenever they need it.