A bill authored by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, which passed the Senate Wednesday will allow federal employees to serve on urban search and rescue teams like Boone County’s Task Force One.
The Boone County Fire Protection District manages Missouri Task Force One, one of 28 federally supported urban search and rescue teams. A 2016 federal law provided non-federal employees with liability protections while participating on urban search and rescue teams.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency interpreted the law to mean that federal law prohibits federal employees from serving on these task forces. The bill, if signed by President Donald Trump, will allow more Missourians to serve on Task Force One and to save lives, Hartzler said in a news release.
“It was imperative we fix this glitch in federal law so all dedicated volunteers can be deployed,” Hartzler said.
Task Force One has been deployed to assist after natural disasters like last year’s Hurricane Michael along the Florida Panhandle. In May, Task Force One assisted after a powerful tornado hit Jefferson City.
The task force has teams that specialize in urban rescue, water rescues and helicopter rescues, said Boone County Fire Chief Scott Olsen. Most of the time, Task Force One teams respond to issues in the state. Less often, teams respond to disasters outside the state.
Some sites involve complex search or rescue missions. At other disasters, team members create digital interactive maps and use drones to photograph sites and give governmental officials better pictures of areas’ needs.
“We can respond in a lot of different situations,” Olsen said.
Task force leadership pushed for the change. Essentially, Congress made a clerical error that had a small but significant impact, Olsen said.
Eighty members must be ready to deploy at all times. In all, 210 people staff the task force.
The 2016 legislation prohibited between 50 and 60 federal employees across the country from serving on FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, Olsen said. Locally, four federal employees were prevented from serving on Task Force One.
Volunteers from across Missouri staff the task force, but Olsen stressed the task force uses the help of highly-skilled people who often work for the task force for years. The 2016 legislation disqualified a canine handler who works for the Environmental Protection Agency in Kansas City from working with the task force.
Another safety professional with the EPA’s Kansas City office also was disqualified from working for the task force after the 2016 bill became law.
“It’s not just people who want to volunteer,” Olsen said. “Losing one person we have spent many years training is a very significant event for us.”
House members passed Hartzler’s bill in April. Hartzler spokesman Steve Walsh said the President could sign the legislation in the next few weeks.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican, introduced an identical bill in May. Hawley’s bill passed the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, but did not pass the Senate.
In a news release, Hawley said that ensuring federal employees can serve on task forces will save lives.
“Disaster recovery efforts require all hands on deck,” Hawley said in a news release. “Passing this legislation will make that possible in Missouri and across the country.”