Below is an article that was published in a Virginia newspaper this past November. I think it is useful for this class because I believe most of you will yourselves become “advocates” for increasing funding for our infrastructure. The story that follows is my story, but it can just as easily be yours, and perhaps you will learn something from my experience. I hope so. Remember the topic for this week’s discussion is “advocacy.” It is not about me or urban search and rescue. It is about how each of you individually and collectively can become an advocate for public good. Respond the same way this week as you have in the previous weeks. Cheers.
MILLBORO — In the event of a large-scale disaster, members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue Teams are routinely called on to respond, both at home and overseas. These task forces exist largely due to the efforts of Pete Minetree, who lives in the Millboro area.
Minetree began working on the formation of such a program more than 40 years ago and has many volumes containing his research and contacts in the effort to get the program off the ground. He only recently decided to talk about his efforts. “I kept all this information thinking eventually someone would want to write a book about it. This is the first time in 40 years that I’ve talked to anyone about it,” he said.
After 26 years, he retired from military service, first spending four years in the US Coast Guard Reserve and the remainder in the Army. He also spent many years in the Washington, D.C. area, working for the National Intelligence Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and numerous organizations in the private sector. “In the 1980s, I was a trustee of the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), which focused on wilderness search and rescue. My friend Lois Clark McCoy was president of that organization, and I discussed with her my ideas for creating an urban search and rescue capability within the United States,” Minetree said. With his water rescue background in the Coast Guard and on the Beach Patrol in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, coupled with his efforts with NASAR, he realized that the country had no organized program for search and rescue in collapsed structures. “I started thinking about structural rescue and finally concluded there was a critical need and that it should be under the umbrella of NASAR. However, their mission was strictly wilderness search and rescue,” Minetree said.
Eventually, Minetree said he thought the best approach would be through a new non-profit organization that would focus on urban search and rescue. He and McCoy ended up forming the National Institute for Urban Search and Rescue in 1981. “It was just the two of us. We recruited others as volunteers,” he said.
Minetree said he started writing about the concept, and over a period of about two years formed a fully-evolved concept of operations. At that point, he decided a national sponsor was needed. “I knew our small organization couldn’t begin to do it, that in fact it should actually be under the government, and I was confident I could sell it quickly. Boy was I wrong,” he said.
For the next five years, Minetree said he talked with “almost every department and agency” of the federal government. “Parking in Washington was terrible, and my wife Martha and my son, who was a toddler at the time, drove me to meetings, often for five or six hours a day. They would sit outside in the car while I had my meeting, and then we would go to another. They worked as hard as me at this,” he said.
He slowly found moral support for his ideas and people began to listen. He said a deputy secretary of the Air Force agreed that an urban search and rescue organization was needed, and the Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga. supported the idea and was willing to provide troops and equipment.
“But still no one was willing to step up and take on the responsibility. The obvious place was FEMA, but in spite of my long association with them, I got no support, no interest, nothing. Finally, after trying to sell this for five years to the government I was angry, frustrated, and I was disappointed that no one was willing to step up,” he said.
At that point, he decided to stop pitching the idea to the executive branch of government. Instead, he said, he decided to go to the Hill and see if he could get someone in Congress to take an interest. There, he immediately found an ally in Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon. Weldon, Minetree said, had recently formed the fire caucus in the Congress, and within a year it had become the largest caucus in history. Concurrently, Weldon also founded the Congressional Fire Services Institute, and Minetree became one of its founding directors.
Together, they successfully wrote the legislation to create and fund a national urban search and rescue capability within the United States, and FEMA was tasked to coordinate the effort. “At that point, FEMA was happy to have the program because it came with money,” Minetree said.
His efforts, Minetree said, will hopefully show others that anyone in our country who cares deeply about something can make it happen. “There is no one in this country who can’t make their voice heard if they feel strongly about something and have the tenacity to go for it. If I’m able to do it, anybody can do it. If there’s an important lesson to come from this story, that’s it,” he said. “This is a program that has saved many thousands of lives, here in our country and throughout the world.”
The first states to form urban search and rescue teams were California and Virginia, Minetree said. “Fairfax County, Virginia Beach, and Los Angeles were the first local jurisdictions in the country to create a team, staff and equip it, conduct the training and become certified. Since then these teams have proliferated and all have responded repeatedly here in the country and overseas,” he said.
Years later, the European Union chose Athens, Greece, as the site for a global conference on urban search and rescue, and the State Department asked Minetree if he would be the principal U.S. representative to the conference. After the conference, he said he spent two weeks in Greece talking to officials there. “Greece and that entire part of the world has a serious earthquake problem, and they continually have large losses of life from collapses,” he said.
Minetree said the U.S. has the best capability in the world for urban search and rescue, followed by France and Israel. “Nobody can touch the United States — no one,” he said.
The program has expanded to include search and rescue dogs that can find victims, sniff out cadavers, work underwater and perform tracking operations. “All of this came from a simple thought about 40 years ago. I’ve never really thought about my role in all this until Hurricane Florence devastated our southeast coast a few weeks ago and I saw a team from California performing swift water rescue. Those team members and others like them are real heroes. They really are,” Minetree said. “All forms of search and rescue are exceedingly dangerous, and watching the TV interview with the team leader really hit me for the first time. I watch the news like anyone else, and the thought has never occurred to me that none of this (urban search and rescue) would be happening if not for me. I was so very proud of the women and men on that team that came here to help us in our time of need.”
An online search indicates the National Institute for Urban Search and Rescue no longer exists. Minetree said the organization ended with McCoy’s death in 2016 at the age of 94 years. She was a remarkable woman.
The material Minetree has in his home is the result of 40 years or so of advocacy for an idea. There is a large folder, for example, detailing the two weeks he spent in Greece. “I still have logs and daily schedules from at least 25 years. I just decided to keep all of it,” he said, “Because I thought a book should be written about how urban search and rescue evolved. I’m not the one to do it, but I have always hoped that someone else in the national search and rescue community or the fire service would write a book about it. Maybe FEMA should document all of this. No one else knows the genesis of this program and all of this material is the documentation.”
In addition, Minetree spent many years on humanitarian demining efforts to remove land mines from areas where there had been conflicts or where terrorists had placed them. “To this day, concealed land mines are used as a weapon of terror. These mines deny people use of their property, their homes and their farms, and they indiscriminately kill and maim countless innocent children and adults. I tried to remediate this sad issue for many years,” he said.
Minetree said his career, both in and out of the military, helped him take on issues such as these. “My career prepared me well. I understood the government at all levels and was completely conditioned to the politics, the bureaucratic infighting, and the turf issues. My skills helped me stay focused, and I was still there long after others had fallen along the way. By the grace of God and a lot of luck, it happened,” he said.
Today, there are 28 (this number changes from time to time) FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Teams distributed around the country. In the event of a disaster, normally the nearest three teams are activated and deployed. If the situation demands more, additional teams are activated as needed. These teams have the capability to provide medical support, search and rescue, limited communication and transportation, and command and control, often at times when the disaster has destroyed the entire local infrastructure.