State argues to keep elite search and rescue task force

State hopes to hand off team to Albuquerque Fire Department


ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Hammered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its lack of readiness in the face of major disasters, New Mexico’s urban search and rescue task force is appealing FEMA’s decision to remove the team from national response plans.

In a formal appeal filed last month, New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Secretary Jay Mitchell argued the state’s case, telling FEMA officials that New Mexico Task Force One, or NM-TF1, is well on its way to fixing problems that have plagued the federally funded task force for a decade.

If Mitchell is successful in convincing the federal agency that the task force should have its status and funding restored, the state plans to hand off sponsorship of the team to the Albuquerque Fire Department.

But while FEMA has assured the state it will give the appeal a fair hearing, New Mexico’s history is working against it.

The last full deployment for the task force was to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For most of the last decade, it has been banned by FEMA from responding to major disasters because of improper handling of federal grants and its failure to prove that task force members were certified to do their highly specialized jobs.

A peer review performed by other task force members in August was stopped after the state and reviewers discovered forged training certificates in personnel files. A subsequent internal investigation found more than 200 fake credentials. A criminal inquiry is now underway.

In the weeks since the federal government told the state of its decision, task force leaders have worked to find proper training documentation, close out open federal grants and complete myriad other tasks left undone for years.

But in emails obtained by KRQE News 13 through a public records request, Secretary Mitchell informed key task force members that FEMA told Governor Martinez and congressional staffers that it had doubts about the state’s ability to keep the team at mission-ready status.

In an interview with KRQE News 13, Mitchell said the feds acted too quickly to dump the task force: “They could have worked with us on our way ahead, our plans. We were already heavily into the corrective action plans.”

Instead, he said, a secretive group at the federal agency chose not only to remove New Mexico from its disaster plan, but also picked a successor — New Jersey — at the same meeting.
FEMA Announcement Memo

Mitchell’s appeal didn’t mince words.

“We were up front and honest in that appeal about where we sit. We acknowledged our past problems,” he said.

The need for a task force based in New Mexico, staffed with highly trained professionals using advanced equipment, is obvious to Mitchell.

“When you start talking about major national assets in this state that have potential dangers: our national labs, our basing and everything else, this equipment would be vital as first responders,” he said.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation echoed those thoughts in a letter of support sent to FEMA administrators.

A key part of New Mexico’s effort to keep the team is the state’s plan to relinquish control of the task force once it’s deemed operational.

The state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management would then hand off the team to the Albuquerque Fire Department.

“We’re just a bit more agile and flexible in the city than they are in the state,” said chief David Downey. “So we can avoid some of the delays that come with the process of training and purchasing.”

Downey said he’s seen first-hand the cost of a state bureaucracy that’s too slow.

“There was an opportunity for some of the team members — I believe it was in Georgia — to travel,” for training, he said. The state didn’t approve a purchase order fast enough. “And we missed it.”

The move wouldn’t bring additional cost to AFD, Downey said, because the $1.2 million federal grant that pays for the team’s handful of full-time staffers and training costs would transfer to the department.

The advantage to AFD is clear, Downey said. “The capabilities…just for example, the structural engineer that’s associated with the FEMA team; the fire department has called the task force’s engineer to help us assess local collapse hazards.”

Until the federal agency makes a decision on the task force’s appeal, though, Downey and state leaders are hesitant to make further plans.

Mitchell summed up the sentiment of the team’s 220-plus members: “We’re on pins and needles.”

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