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Hundreds of first-responders deploy from Fla. convention center to hurricane-damaged areas

The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando can accommodate a fleet of ambulances, watercraft and 18-wheelers


In the aftermath of Hurricane Idalia’s impact on Florida, members of the Virginia Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, made up of firefighters from Virginia Beach, await an assignment from the Search and Rescue/FEMA Resource Center staging area at the Orange County Convention Center.

Rich Pope, Orlando Sentinel

By Stephen Hudak
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — About 400 first responders from Virginia to South Florida huddled Tuesday at the Orange County Convention Center before heading Wednesday to help Big Bend, Cedar Key and other coastal communities pounded by Hurricane Idalia.

“We go where we’re needed,” said Chris Swinson, assistant emergency manager in Coral Springs and spokesman for urban search and rescue teams that brought hundreds of emergency vehicles to Orlando.

The group included a team of 40 first responders from Central Florida departments, known as Urban Search & Rescue Task Force 4, that was sent to Big Bend in Taylor County, where Idalia made landfall about 8 a.m.


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Idalia arrived as a Category 3 hurricane with top sustained winds of 125 mph.

The Central Florida team deployed was made up of a dozen firefighters from Seminole County, 11 from Orange County Fire-Rescue, 10 from the Orlando Fire Department, two from Osceola County Fire Rescue and one each from Kissimmee, Melbourne and the former Reedy Creek Fire Department that serves the Disney area.

Two canine handlers and a structural specialist also are part of of the team.

The task force, founded in 2004, responds to natural and man-made disasters, providing search-and-rescue services, medical support, communications and damage assessment, according to a fact sheet created by Doreen Overstreet of the Seminole County Fire Department.

Since its inception, Task Force 4 has been deployed to a dozen incidents in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. On June 25, 2021, 42 members aided in rescue efforts in the Surfside building collapse in Miami.

Deployments typically last 10 to 14 days and are generally self-sufficient.

Overstreet said the task forces bring their own resources, including food, water and restroom facilities, so that none of their needs are taxed from resources in the areas they are deployed to help.

“They are the best of the best,” Swinson said of the task force teams.

He praised the Orange County Convention Center as a unique staging area with more than 400,000 square feet under cover, enough to accommodate a fleet of ambulances, watercraft and 18-wheelers.

“It’s impressively large,” he said.

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