Berkeley firefighters are headed home this weekend from several weeks away from family and friends. They were part of FEMA Task Force 4 sent to help out with Hurricane Irma. Photo: BFD/Instagram

A group of Berkeley firefighters are among those assisting with the rescue and cleanup efforts post-Hurricane Irma. Most also helped after Harvey, in back-to-back disaster responses.

The Berkeley firefighters are part of FEMA Task Force 4, a specialized urban search and rescue team drawing from multiple local agencies, which is based at the Oakland Fire Department. Seven Berkeley fire fighters went to Irma; six of these had assisted after Harvey, turning around before they even got home.

“The trucks started rolling back from Texas after Harvey, and got reactivated, turning east and heading back to Georgia and then Orlando,” said Acting Berkeley Fire Chief Dave Brannigan.

In recent days the task force has been helping in the Florida Keys, Brannigan said. Phone contact with the crew has been spotty, he said, but he gets occasional text updates, with the goal of a daily check-in.

The last word he received indicated their spirits are high, he said.

“The team trains throughout the year and the opportunity to put those skills to use only comes up once or twice a decade,” Brannigan said. “I think they were very excited [to use them].”

A water rescue training exercise by the California task force participating in Irma and Harvey relief efforts. Berkeley firefighters are part of the group. Photo: Cal Office of Emergency Services

In Harvey, the task force was primarily focused on search and rescue from boats in and around the heavily flooded town of Katy, Texas, just outside of Houston, he said.

Detailed updates from Florida are expected as power and cell service is restored to the area.

Brannigan said about 15 Berkeley firefighters are part of Task Force 4. Eight or so are regular members and the rest are reserves. Similar to serving in the National Guard, firefighters serving on FEMA disaster teams agree to monthly trainings and duty.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pays the salaries of those in disaster service, and reimburses local agencies, such as Berkeley, for the cost of filling their slots while they’re on federal duty.

Brannigan said having firefighters participate in FEMA work is positive in several ways. For one thing, they get a high level of urban search and rescue training, which is a resource at home, he said.

As well, Brannigan said, “It gives us a sense of pride that our guys are helping people with the biggest need in the nation right now.… It also makes us feel good that when we have a disaster, which we’re bound to have, there will be well trained and motivated people coming here to help us.”

The participating Berkeley firefighters are captains Joe McCarthy, Chuck Wong and Jon Fischer; apparatus operators Rudy Valencia, Alfonso Muñoz and Robert Lawrence; and firefighter James Liberatore.

Fire captain helps as volunteer federal emergency paramedic

Berkeley Fire Capt. Mike Sullivan in the Virgin Islands with a federal emergency medical team providing Irma relief. Photo: U.S. Department of HHS

In another Berkeley Fire-Hurricane Irma connection, Berkeley Fire Capt. Mike Sullivan is currently assisting in post-hurricane actions as a paramedic on a different federal disaster team, Disaster Medical Assistance, or DMAT.

Sullivan is a member of DMAT California 6, based in the Bay Area.

Among other jobs, the team helped move dialysis patients from the Virgin Islands just after Irma devastated the area, according to a press release. (Learn more on USA Today.)

Unlike the FEMA Task Force 4 arrangement, Sullivan takes vacation or personal time to participate in this team, and Berkeley receives no reimbursements.

The DMAT team is under the National Disaster Medical System, which coordinates federal emergency medical response. The system is a partnership of the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense and Veterans Affairs.

Brannigan said he also receives text updates from Sullivan, but contact has also been sketchy due to damaged infrastructure. He’s also said public information on the DMAT team’s work is supposed to come directly from the federal agencies.

Berkeleyside will check in with city firefighters on hurricane duty when they return. The team may come back to the Bay Area this weekend.

Update, Sept. 18. BFD shared this photograph of Rudy Valencia, Joe McCarthy and Alfonso Munoz after they came home Saturday night.

Firefighters Rudy Valencia, Joe McCarthy, Alfonso Munoz (from left). Photo: Berkeley Fire Department

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...