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The City Journals

Taylorsville firefighter Wade Russell recently helped with disaster relief in Florida and Louisiana

Oct 05, 2021 09:52AM ● By Carl Fauver

Utah Task Force 1 members Wade Russell and Mike Ulibarri (L-R) were dispatched to the building collapse disaster in Florida last summer. (Courtesy Wade Russell)

By Carl Fauver | [email protected]

As our nation marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11 last month, the solemn date had particular significance for dozens of Utah-based emergency responders who travelled to New York’s “Ground Zero” in the days after that tragic terrorist attack. One of those who made the trek was a brand-new firefighter, barely four years out of Kearns High School.

Now, a generation later, Wade Russell remains a firefighter and still responds to America’s disasters on a regular basis. 

“My Dad was a firefighter for 37 years, from 1969 to 2006,” Russell said. “But even up through high school (graduating from KHS in 1997), that was not something I thought about doing.”

A summer spent working on a wildland firefighting team changed Wade’s mind. And in September 1999 he hired with the Salt Lake County Fire Department, since rebranded Unified Fire Authority.

“My Dad never really told me firefighting stories or tried to convince me to become a fireman,” Russell said. “But all our family friends were firefighters and their families. I liked them. I liked the lifestyle. I like the odd [work] schedule. So, I joined.”

Russell is now a battalion chief, with seven different UFA stations under his command in Taylorsville, Kearns, Magna and Midvale. He works out of UFA Station 118, next door to Taylorsville City Hall.

Back when he first became a firefighter, Russell was also able to join his father working on what was then the fledgling Utah Task Force 1 (UT-TF1) Urban Search and Rescue Team. This was just two years before the 9/11/2001 hijackings. In fact, Russell says those attacks resulted in UT-TF1’s first-ever deployment.

“My Dad and I were both sent to Ground Zero and worked together there,” Russell said. “A total of 62 members of our Utah Task Force 1 team went to New York.”

Twenty years later, UT-TF1 duties continue to take Russell to all corners of the country. This summer, it was a pair of long trips east.

“Our task force itself was not deployed this summer; their last deployment was to a wildfire in Medford, Oregon, last summer,” he said. “But I am now a member of an Urban Search and Rescue Incident Support Team, which is made up of members from several states. As part of that team, I was deployed to Florida in July and Louisiana in September.”

You’ll recall, it was about 1:30 a.m. EDT on the morning of June 24, when a 12-story beachfront condominium in the Miami suburb of Surfside partially collapsed, killing 98 people. Unlike fires or hurricanes, it came completely without warning, like 9/11.

“I and one other person from Utah were sent to Miami on July first,” Russell said. “I worked 12-hour shifts, noon to midnight, for 17 straight days. It was the same number of days I was at Ground Zero (20 years earlier). Those are my longest deployments ever.”

Russell works as an incident safety officer on the IST, meaning other safety officers report to him.

“We were pretty lucky in Miami,” he said. “There were no serious injuries among the search and rescue responders. We had a lot of heat exhaustion, some lacerations—a couple of people needed stitches—but no major problems.”

While search and rescue personnel normally sleep in motels or occasionally tents, when necessary, Russell says the accommodations in Florida were unique.

“We got lucky, because a cruise ship was being refurbished at that time; so, we spent our nights on the ship,” he said. “It was about 7 miles from the collapsed tower. But, with traffic, it took 45 minutes to get back and forth.” 

After returning to Utah from Miami, it was barely six weeks before Russell was back out with his incident support team, this time going to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the day after Hurricane Ida made landfall.

“At first, I didn’t think I would be going to Louisiana, because it was not my turn [in the deployment rotation[,” he said. “But [Ida] was such a large hurricane, covering such a wide geographical area, they needed more people.”

Because of all the flooding and power outages, the closest Russell’s commercial plane could land to the IST command post in Baton Rouge was Houston. From there, he drove 270 miles.

As was the case in Florida, health and safety incidents for task force team members responding to Hurricane Ida were minimal.

“Again, our only real issues in Louisiana were heat exhaustion cases,” Russell said. “One of my biggest jobs was to make sure everyone had enough water and was maintaining hydration.”

Russell was in Louisiana one week, returning to Utah on Labor Day.

While most of us would run from collapsing buildings and hurricanes, Russell finds fulfillment in going toward them.

“I like it, because I like the unknown,” he said. “It is neat to help people who really need you and to see their appreciation. I plan to stay with the [UT-TF1] team for years to come.”

With 16- and 13-year-old sons still at home, Russell calls his wife the “unsung hero” in his family.

“She is so supportive of me going [on task force deployments], but then she is stuck with the extra work at home,” he said. “My boys have not ever expressed an interest in one day becoming firefighters, but who knows.”

After all, when Wade Russell was their age, with his father a veteran firefighter, he had no idea those were the footsteps he’d follow, from Ground Zero to Florida to Louisiana and many other points across the country.

On its website (uttf1.org), UT-TF1 reports, “Urban Search and Rescue Utah Task Force 1 is one of 28 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search & Rescue Task Forces in the United States. UT-TF1 currently has approximately 210 members, of which 186 are Unified Fire and Salt Lake City Fire Employees. The Task Force manages $6.3 million in specialized vehicles and equipment.”