UNION COUNTY, N.C. — The Monroe Fire Department and Union County Emergency Management Department worked together to qualify Union County's first swift water rescue team.
The team, which will be used locally and can be deployed across the state, will respond to flooding emergencies and rescue operations.
The newly qualified team is the only team between Charlotte and Robeson County which can be deployed statewide, according to Union County Emergency Management.
Thirty-three members of the Monroe Fire Department are on the team and can be split into three smaller groups of 10 to respond to multiple emergencies locally, or across the state.
"We're certainly pleased to be at this level in being able to serve our community," said Monroe Fire Chief Ron Fowler. "That's our number one responsibility is serving our local community. Now, anytime we can do that and still be prepared to help others, we want to do that. Because, there are times when we need that help as well, when folks come in and help us."
Fowler said he was proud of his team and the training they completed to meet state qualification.
"We've had some level of capability for the last 20 years, and a lot of those kind of more common events, we were able to handle," Fowler said. "But it was really those more major events, again such as Hurricane Florence, which that was the worst flooding event in our history and we did have resources -- water rescue teams from other parts of the country that came in and helped us with that. So, this does make us better prepared for that as well."
Fowler emphasized Hurricane Florence's impact on the county and why they felt it was time to take a step forward in capabilities. Members of the new team agreed.
"So, during Florence I think we had 180 road closures maybe in the county here," recalled Johnny Blythe.
Blythe, a battalion chief with Monroe Fire, is a member of the new team.
"During that time, watching how the swift water team out of South Florida worked, and the capabilities they brought to the table, we saw a lot of things that we needed to change. And, we started to address those as soon as that event was over," Blythe said.
Blythe added, specifically, they watched the team from South Florida rescue a mother and child from swift water off N.C. 218. The child did not survive, but Blythe said watching the team showed them they needed the ability.
247 training hours each and 2.5 years later, 33 people are qualified as part of the new swift water rescue team.
The training will continue to keep their qualification and then learn specialized skills like land searches, mapping, GPS and others, according to Blythe.
"All the time, it never stops," Blythe joked.
Monroe Fire Department Station Four showed off all the equipment for the team. So far, the county has three water craft, an extra motor and a large trailer for gear.
Fowler and Blythe said it's necessary to have all the equipment because flooding emergencies are rarely isolated.
"We get these calls in bunches because the thunderstorm blows up, it doesn't just flood one creek. So, we have a tendency to have more than one of these calls at a time," Blythe added.
Fowler and Blythe also made sure to thank Union County, saying the relationships among members of Union County government and the city of Monroe made the team possible and should lead to its expansion.
Union County Emergency Management is crucial to the team's success.
In state disaster situations, a group like the swift water rescue team would be required to be self-sufficient for the first 72-hours onsite. Meaning, they would have to find their own housing, food and other needs. So, Union County Emergency Management will travel with them and provide those amenities when needed, according to Director Andrew Ansley.
All told, the new team is a combination of county wide support and will continue to be a county effort as they prepare for the 2021 hurricane season and other future potential flooding disasters.