New Jersey Task Force One prepares for real disasters

BY Lauren Wanko, Correspondent |

It looks like a movie set: heavy concrete pieces scattered, sharp bits of metal piercing through the debris and someone trapped underneath the rubble. This situation is a drill, New Jersey Task Force One is preparing for real disasters.

“We try to be ready for almost anything,” said Task Force One Leader Jim Bastan.

New Jersey Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue does just that. Team members train at their facility located on Joint Base McGuire Dix-Lakehurst. In this scenario, disaster search and rescue dog Copper looks, sniffs rather, for a live victim buried under the rubble. Copper quickly finds the man.

“If they find a human scent, they’ll stay and they’ll bark in place to alert us and let us know the location. Then that dog comes out we’ll send a second dog in and that dog will do the same thing,” Bastan said.

If that dog hovers around the same area, the rest of the team moves in to assist. This New Jersey Task Force One member uses a camera which allows the team to record, listen and speak to the victim. The canine handlers own the dogs. Jennifer Michelson starts training her dogs as puppies. In this exercise, eight year old Remus is looking for human remains. He’s rewarded with a treat.

“Our dogs are called generalized air scenting dogs. They will find any human in the area, human remain detection, they’re going to find any body,” said Michelson.

Because of the amount of trains and tunnels in the state, the team wanted to replicate a train crash in order to prepare for a disaster, which is why they purchased two trains. When team members first hop on board they become disorientated, but after enough practice they tend to get used to situation.

New Jersey Task Force One, which is managed by the State Police Emergency Management Section is comprised of more than 250 volunteers. They train constantly, not just during hurricane season. NOAA forecasters predict an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season with 11 to 17 named storms of which five to nine could become hurricanes, including two to four major hurricanes.

“Then you have to start wondering when they’re going to form and the path they’re going to take once they’ve formed. And that’s something we don’t have a real good forecasting handle on to this day. You almost have to look at it week by week to see what the driving currents are in the atmosphere that would take a storm and perhaps put it into the Caribbean Sea, up into the Gulf of Mexico or turn it up the East Coast,” said State Climatologist David Robinson.

New Jersey Task Force One, a FEMA recognized team, has responded to plenty of hurricanes and other disasters in the state and other parts of the country.

“In order to be prepared, we make sure that we’re meeting with our partners, other agencies that we’re writing our plans and we’re training,” said State Police Captain Mario Sinatra.

One of those partners is the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

“We prepare for hurricane season year round,” said Assistant Commissioner of Operations Andrew Tunnard.

Some DOT employees are New Jersey Task Force One volunteers. They all have the same goal and that’s to rescue.

How does it feel to save lives?

“We don’t think of it that way. We just go out and we do our job. We think of everyone as we go out as if they were our own family member,” said Bastan.