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Captiva Fire Department conducts Structural Safety Inspector training

By Staff | Aug 19, 2011

Sherrill Sims, left, and Larry Lema going over their assessment of the damage during last week's Structure Safety Inspector training.

The Brown residence cannot be seen from the road. There is a long winding dirt driveway leading to the house. It is raining hard and the wind is blowing.

The caretaker of the property was warned of the impending hurricane but refused to leave. The structure safety inspectors arrive on scene to find scattered debris and downed power lines. The windows are damaged and part of the roof has collapsed under a fallen tree.

Maneuvering around the destruction to the back of the house, the safety inspectors make a grizzly discovery. The caretaker has been killed. He is lying motionless beneath a pile of tree limbs, with a downed ladder and chain saw next to him.

Luckily this was only a drill, but for the Captiva Fire Department and the Structural Safety Inspectors (SSI’s), this could be a very real scenario. On Aug. 10, the SSI’s and fire department officials met for a mock training exercise to prepare them for their response in the event of a hurricane.

Mark Wells, of the Captiva Island Fire Control District, headed up the mock disaster scene.

Part of the SSI team included, from left, Lt. Joe Poppalardo, Leslie Fenske, Larry Lema, Sherrill Sims, Dennis Gureine, Pete Walsh, Capt. Alan Delameter, Bill Krentzjaus and Mark Wells.

“You will respond house-to-house. After Charley, there was so much damage and debris it was difficult to geographically identify where you were. These storms make addresses unrecognizable. Your only form of indetification may be the numbered fire hydrants,” Wells said to the group that has formed a semi-circle around the mannequin that is standing in for Mr. Brown’s corpse. “We also have a program similar to Google Earth that has all residences numbered and you will have this aerial view at your disposal as well.”

Lee County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Joe Poppalardo explained how this program works.

“Captiva is broken into three zones, with each house mapped in their particular zone,” he said. “Each SSI team is assigned a zone and will assess all structures in that zone.”

This information will then be forwarded to the Lee County EOC, who will forward it to FEMA, giving an accurate assessment of the sort of monetary and physical resources needed from the agency.

According to Captiva Island Fire Control District, the SSI team was established in 2005 after hurricane Charlie struck Captiva Island in 2004. Its members are from the local community, consisting of business owners and residents.

Mark Wells steps through the debris.

As we are entering hurricane season, this training exercise is as timely as the wind and rain. SSI’s will be the first on site to many houses in the wake of a hurricane, even before fire and police. It is the job of the SSI’s to go house to house, assessing damages and possible injuries. In the event they do find someone dead or alive, they are armed with radios and can contact Fire, Police, and Search and Rescue units right away.

Capt. Alan Delameter, of the Captiva Island Fire Control District, added, “It is your job to survey and observe the scene. Fire and Rescue personnel will respond to injuries or fatalities. You are only out to assess damage.”

“How will we know if someone is injured or killed on site if they aren’t making noise?” asked one of the SSI’s.

“You will be on site three to four days after the storm, if someone is dead you will probably smell them before you see them,” responded Wells. “Still, it is not your job to search for bodies.”

After Charley, it took search and rescue operations three days just to clear the roads to get to houses like the Brown residence which is set back from the road in thick vegetation. With no SSI in place at the time, the U.S. Marshals had to come conduct these types of operations.

Some of the debris strewn around the Brown residence for a mock disaster training drill.

“The island itself has just started to rebound from Charley. The vegetation that was destroyed is just filling in now,” said Wells, standing on the back deck of the Brown residence. The house is located right down the road from ‘Tween Waters on Captiva Drive. Wells explained that after Charley, the vegetation was so decimated that you could see the Gulf and the Bay from the house.

One of the SSI’s, Dennis Gureine, attests to the power of that storm, mentioning a bobcat skid steer loader that was flipped over by the force of the winds.

It is exactly this force of nature that the SSI’s are trained to respond to.

“We now conduct these training exercises once a year to prepare for the event of a disaster,” Delameter added. “We try and make it as real as possible to simulate the true unpredictability of the aftermath of these storms. We didn’t plan this weather today, but it just reinforces how unpredictable these situations really are.”

Mark Wells discussing the disaster scenario with the SSI team.