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FEMA Denies State's Appeal to Keep Urban Search, Rescue Team

New Mexico Task Force 1 has been one of 28 highly skilled teams across the nation designed to respond within hours to any type of disaster anywhere in the country.

by Staci Matlock, The Santa Fe New Mexican / January 14, 2016
(Shutterstock)

(TNS) - New Mexico has lost its bid to retain a federally supported urban search-and-rescue team after years of poor financial management and record keeping, among other problems.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency last week denied an appeal from M. Jay Mitchell, Cabinet secretary of New Mexico’s Department of Homeland Security, to let the state keep its New Mexico Task Force 1 team.

New Mexico Task Force 1 has been one of 28 highly skilled teams across the nation designed to respond within hours to any type of disaster anywhere in the country. New Mexico’s team fielded medical staff, firefighters, hazardous waste specialists, heavy equipment operators and trained rescuers from fire departments and homeland security operations scattered across the state.

The team loses the prestige of participating as part of the National Urban Search and Rescue system and is out federal funding for gas, equipment, food and other expenses of team members who responded to disasters.

“It’s disappointing because the team worked so hard on this with the current administration to respond to FEMA’s concerns,” said Karen Takai, public information officer with the Department of Homeland Security.

Mitchell was appointed Cabinet secretary a year ago. Takai said Mitchell has been working with the city of Albuquerque for several months on a plan to jointly set up a statewide urban search-and-rescue team.

The team will have to tap into state funds and other grant money to pay for disaster responses. “We’ll be creative in getting our team back,” Takai said.

In the meantime, she said, “if there was a disaster in New Mexico, we are absolutely able to respond to any disaster. We have the infrastructure and the tools and the skilled people to respond.”

While the city of Santa Fe has several volunteer search-and-rescue teams, those are overseen by New Mexico State Police and focus more on rescuing people who are lost or injured in wilderness back country.

The urban search-and-rescue team trains to handle a variety of disasters such as hazardous waste spills, earthquakes and explosions.

Initially, New Mexico’s task force was to have 210 personnel organized into three teams. They were to be self-sufficient for the first 72 hours after being called to a disaster scene, bringing all their own equipment, from medical triage supplies to jackhammers.

But problems with the team dated back to 2007, when the task force was no longer able to maintain the number of “deployable members” needed for national disasters. The last time the team was sent to a national disaster was Hurricane Katrina, according to people familiar with task force who asked to remain anonymous due to their current positions in state government.

In a September letter, FEMA alerted the state that it was removing the task force from its national response system. FEMA said other teams had tried on numerous occasions over the years to help New Mexico’s task force resolve problems. But the task force had continually failed to meet operational standards. FEMA also noted the task force struggled with financial management and proper reporting of expenses.

The state appealed, but the federal government was unmoved. Elizabeth Zimmerman, associate administrator for FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery said in the Jan. 8 letter to Mitchell that the state’s “significant non-compliance” with federal regulations, its inability to meet operational standards for an extended time and extensive efforts to help the state resolve the issues were part of her decision.

Other states are already vying to fill the national task force slot that will open in early February with New Mexico’s departure.

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