PEF fire protection specialists deploy to Puerto Rico
By KATE MOSTACCIO
For almost a month, PEF member and fire protection specialist James Galu was away from his family, assisting the citizens of Puerto Rico after a devastating earthquake rocked the island in January. In the days that followed, hundreds of aftershocks continued to jolt the cities and towns.
With expertise and skills uniquely suited to lending aid, a team of 25 from New York State Fire and the New York Department of State left the comfort of home and headed to the southwest corner of the island, from Mayaguez to Ponce.
“We were brought down to assist Puerto Rico with doing damage assessments after they had a pretty substantial earthquake, which Puerto Rico is not used to experiencing,” said Galu. “We did house-to-house checks, verifying structural safety. We advised them if there were limits on where they could be in the house. Worse case, we told them you shouldn’t be in this house at all.”
As a fire protection specialist, Galu is trained in code enforcement.
“We used our basic code knowledge and building construction skills to make recommendations,” he said. “We were triaging for Puerto Rico so they knew where to focus their efforts and they didn’t have to go to each and every building.”
This was Galu’s first deployment to an emergency outside of New York.
“We didn’t know what to expect as far as the residents and how receptive they were going to be to us being there,” he said. “They met us with open arms and said please come into our house. In some places, there were people living in tents in their front yards.
“The entire island just accepted us and welcomed us into their homes,” he said. “They offered us food and drinks and they were treating us like family. They were happy to see us.”
The team from State Fire worked in the southern part of the island, the hardest hit areas, as well as in the mountainous regions where homes were 30 to 45 minutes away from each other. Each region had different levels of devastation.
“In the places where I was, the mountain regions, there weren’t many red tags — where you are not allowed to go into the house at all,” Galu said. “They were mostly yellow tags, meaning things like limit your time in this part of the house. Or, you really shouldn’t use that bathroom. Or, stay away from that wall, it might come down, but it doesn’t affect the structural integrity of the house.
“People at the epicenter had a lot more houses that were red tags or that had completely collapsed,” Galu said. “I would imagine they are going to need help for a long time. There is definitely a lot of damage down there.”
PEF Division 179 kept members, friends, family and the public apprised of the situation with photos and short write-ups on social media.
“The impact these members have made in the lives of those that are going through such hardship is immeasurable,” PEF Division 179 stated on its Facebook page. “To date, the New York State teams have conducted approximately 2,300 structural inspections, ensuring the safety of families and individuals impacted by the recent earthquakes in Southwest Puerto Rico.
“The personal sacrifices of our own members and their families cannot go unnoticed as they have been away for over two weeks,” the post stated. “We appreciate all that they and their families have done.”
For Galu, he and his wife had just purchased a home and being away for nearly 30 days was difficult.
“My wife is a rockstar and took care of everything at home,” he said. “We just bought a house and we’re renovating the kitchen and bathroom and she was pretty much making all the decisions, making purchases and talking to the contractors.”
Initially, the call was for volunteers to travel to Puerto Rico for two weeks.
“They asked us if anyone would be willing to go down,” Galu said. “We were told we have a unique opportunity and who wants to be a part of it.” The two weeks ended up being extended an additional two weeks for eight of the fire protection specialists.
In addition to damage assessments, the state fire team members also managed to impart fire safety knowledge on some Puerto Rican homeowners.
“I helped someone change a carbon monoxide alarm battery,” Galu said. “She had no idea how to do that. It’s not something we were expecting but that education never stops, wherever you are.”
Division 179 also thanked fire protection specialists who remained home and staffed the Fire Operations Center daily in Albany.
“These folks have been maintaining contact with those on the ground in Puerto Rico, monitoring earthquake activity, handling all logistical support for the traveling members, and providing a voice on the other end of the phone 24/7 since prior to members departure on February 2,” the Division Facebook page stated.
Galu praised his fellow members for responding.
“The support we got from the fire protection specialist 2 and 3s that are also PEF members, it was outstanding,” Galu said. “How much time they dedicated knowing that they might not get fully compensated for the 12-hour days.”
Eight fire protection specialists demobilized after spending 16 days on the island and an additional 10, including two bilingual deputy chiefs, remained for an additional 10 days supporting the Puerto Rican National Guard in conjunction with the California, Louisiana and North Carolina Emergency Management crews with structural inspections.
Another group of PEF fire protection specialist 1s, 2s, and a fire protection engineer were canvassed for their availability and selected to go to Puerto Rico, should the island’s government ask for their aid. Those members are currently waiting for the approval to go, essentially putting their lives on hold at home.
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