N.J. county forms building disaster unit

Last summer when the floor collapsed at the Crab House Restaurant, threatening customers at the popular Lower Township eatery, there were no experts in Cape May County to deal with the situation. Firefighters, police and rescue squads showed up, but none had extensive training in dealing with collapsed buildings.

That soon will change.

They call it the Cape May County RESORT, and it stands for Regional Emergency Special Operations Response Team. You could call it a firefighter SWAT team, only this special-operations unit made up of firefighters from all over the county will not fight fires. It will respond to collapses of buildings, boardwalks, roadways, bridges and piers. It could be called for a confined-space emergency, perform a high-rise rescue or save summer tourists trapped on an amusement ride. The unit also could come in handy in hurricanes or terrorism incidents.

"We're training 25 firefighters in Cape May County. We're in the application process now. There's definitely a need and there has been one for a while," Cape May Fire Chief Jerry Inderwies Jr. said.

Inderwies is vice president of the Cape May County Fire Chiefs Association, which came up with the idea. When the Crab House Restaurant floor gave way on a busy July night, the nearest such unit was in Atlantic City and took two hours to arrive. The State Police unit that responds to such emergencies is based in Ocean County. It took four hours to arrive.

The fire chiefs think Cape May County should have its own unit - especially with plans to build high rises on the oceanfront - that can arrive quicker.

"We want to learn to stablilize the situation and attempt to rescue people," Inderwies said.

The project needs equipment, a vehicle and training. That's where Cape May County Emergency Management Director Frank McCall comes in.

McCall and the fire chiefs already have Homeland Security funds to purchase $200,000 in urban rescue equipment, which has been ordered. A $48,000 grant from the state Department of Community Affairs is being sought to train the volunteers. McCall also is getting the county to fund a $350,000 vehicle but said this will probably be offset by federal grants down the road. There is no pay for the team, so there are no labor costs.

"It's all volunteer. It will not be a burden on municipal taxpayers or county taxpayers," McCall said.

The training will be similar to what the elite State Police Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue goes through. There are several county firefighters serving in this unit already. Training will include a building-collapse course. McCall said the AFL-CIO union, which has experts in building construction, has agreed to help with the training, which could start this summer. Inderwies said members will have to pass a physical and come in with the standard firefighting training.

McCall, however, noted there are spots on the team in which being physically strong is not important. Some would not be front-line responders but will do planning and logistics.

"The young Turks, that's what I call them, will probably be the first-line responders. Other folks can help out. The Cape May County Fire Chiefs Association will run operations," McCall said.

Such units are typically used in urban areas, but McCall said the state is making the county a pilot program by having one in a more rural-suburban setting. Federal teams operate under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In New Jersey, they operate under the state Office of Emergency Management.

"It's the one component of emergency response we had been lacking in the county," McCall said.

Training will be during nights and weekends. McCall said another benefit is some of this knowledge can be passed on to fire companies on drill nights.