Members of Maryland Task Force 1 board a plane on Sunday at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport headed to Puerto Rico. Credit: Pete Piringer

Montgomery County has sent more than a dozen of its fire and rescue service personnel to Puerto Rico to assist residents in need of help after hurricane Fiona tore through the island last weekend.

Division Chief Gary Cooper of the county Fire and Rescue Service told reporters during a news briefing Wednesday that 15 staff members had traveled to Puerto Rico as part of Maryland Task Force 1, a regional rescue team that travels throughout the U.S. and outlying areas to assist with natural disaster responses.

The other 30 members of Maryland Task Force 1 are from Prince George’s and Howard counties and the entire team has been in a hotel in San Juan for about a day, Cooper said. Another 35-member team has also flown in from Nebraska, he said.

Currently, Maryland Task Force 1 is on a humanitarian mission, but that could change to a rescue mission depending on conditions, Cooper said. 

“There is no electricity or water to the entire island,” Cooper said. “I imagine we will be involved in service delivery regarding water … . If history continues [the way it has], we’ll probably assist the local municipalities and utilities with debris clearance, so they can get in there and try and restore some power. Any power that’s on the island now is generator power.”

Most of Montgomery County’s personnel have specialized in water rescue, he said. Maryland Task Force 1 will be there for 10 to 14 days in order to complete any missions, which are still being determined, Cooper added. 

County Executive Marc Elrich told reporters that Maryland Task Force 1 has responded to nine similar disasters in the past five years, and participated in some high-profile rescue missions in recent decades, such as the site of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and at the Pentagon after Sept. 11, 2001.

Earl Stoddard, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, said that along with the humanitarian aspect of the trip, Maryland Task Force 1 members acquire new rescue skills and information that help them respond to similar incidents in Montgomery County.

“We often hear, ‘Well, what’s the benefit to Montgomery County in doing this?’ ” Stoddard told reporters. “In addition to the humanitarian benefit that we provide by supporting Americans across the country and including in Puerto Rico, this is an invaluable experience for the team … they bring back a lot of lessons learned and experience they have from going on these deployments.”