Community Member Serves Texas Through Search and Rescue
By Tonyia Cone
Most people do not ask for wetsuits and emergency gear for Hanukkah, but as a Texas Search and Rescue member, Jennifer Failla’s wish list is not the only unique thing about her volunteer work.
Failla, a Miami native who moved to Austin in 1996, was a volunteer with the Greater Miami Jewish Federation when she began researching hands-on work she could do to make the world a better place.
“I sat on boards and had been involved in the federation, but it didn’t feel like enough,” Failla said.
“I wanted to get out there and walk the hot grass and sweat and carry gear.”
Failla joined TEXSAR in 2015 and has since completed training in ground search and rescue and flood and swiftwater rescue.
A leader in Texas disaster response and recovery, TEXSAR deploys at the request of local and state law enforcement, fire service and emergency management agencies, the governor and relief organizations. TEXSAR volunteers look for missing persons, aid in body recovery searches, participate in cold cases, conduct evidentiary search and act as a force multiplier to other agencies during peak events. With teams in Central Texas, Houston and Galveston, Dallas and Fort Worth, the Permian Basin and the Coastal Bend, TEXSAR responded to call-outs 48 times in 2016.
Law enforcement is stretched and budgets are being slashed, Failla explained, and TEXSAR does not charge anything for its services.
“It’s important for us not to bill them or they’d be hesitant to contact us,” said Failla, who is also a divorce financial analyst, a Shalom Austin Jewish Foundation cabinet member and a Congregation Beth Israel board member.
Able to leave her house with her TEXSAR gear within six minutes, Failla has been activated many times, including the 2015 Wimberley floods and the 2016 Caldwell County hot air balloon disaster.
In late August, she took the last flight to Texas from Miami, where she was visiting her father, to assist after Hurricane Harvey made landfall. There for nine days, she and her team performed flood swiftwater live rescue work, going into flooded neighborhoods with inflatable rigid boats to rescue people, under the direction of law enforcement.
“My impression as I walked through so many people’s homes and pulled them out of attics was, ‘This could be your house or my house.’” Failla said, adding that amongst the possessions floating in 5 feet of water around her, she recognized books she had read, dog crates she had used and Costco products she had purchased.
Another particularly memorable situation was when Failla’s team helped a couple who just moved from Pennsylvania to Houston. While stuck in their house flooded with 3 feet of water and rapidly rising, the woman went into labor. Neighbors got her out of the neighborhood in a four-wheel drive vehicle but wrecked the car. They got her to an ambulance, but when it hit a patch of water, they knew they could not drive to the hospital. Failla’s team stepped in to help and got her to the hospital 30 minutes before she started pushing.
“That was a great example of everyone banding together at the last minute. Nothing was formalized. There was no structure. 9-1-1 couldn’t get to her. That was a great example of how the Cajun navy worked too. They just put boats in water and found people,” Failla said. “You just had to do what you had to do to get people out.”
After eating meals, ready to eat, known as MREs, freeze-dried foods packaged for military field troops, for a week and sleeping a few hours whenever they could on the floor in fire stations, police departments or anywhere they could grab rest, Failla went home with a staph infection from walking the floodwaters, car damage, and a wet suit that is no longer usable. She felt frenetic for the whole week following the experience, as a result of her adrenaline.
TEXSAR members have since performed relief work, from delivering water with the National Guard in the immediate aftermath of the storm to the continued cleanup work along the Texas coast in Wharton, Friendswood and Beaumont.
Since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, more than 250 people have applied to volunteer with TEXSAR, which currently is made up of 300 volunteers.
“It was amazing to see the camaraderie of the citizens and everybody who was there,” Failla said, explaining that those not affected by the storms brought food, donations and anything else that would help. “That, to me, is the amazing thing – seeing everyone’s resolve and the power of everyone coming together. It’s tragic and heartbreaking and at the same time, inspiring and moving.”
Failla is preparing for future rescue work by training to become a canine handler with her golden retriever mix, Squanto. She became interested in canine handling when thinking about how to be a better asset to TEXSAR and the community.
Failla and Squanto train 12 to 15 hours each week for live search and rescue. When they finish the training, Squanto will be an area wilderness live find dog and will probably cross train on human remain detection.
“Both bring closure to a family,” Failla said. “When your family is in crisis you want to bring your family home.”
Failla and her team are also working to become recovery dive masters, an important skill to add to their toolkit. When their dogs indicate that remains are underwater, they confirm the information and call an outside dive team to perform the search. But it can take hours and even days for another team to arrive. If TEXSAR volunteers are master divers themselves, they can continue the search without the wait.
As a nonprofit organization funded by grants and private donors, TEXSAR volunteers have all committed time, effort and money to the program, Failla said, and are currently raising funding for dive training.
At times her TEXSAR work can be frightening, Failla said. What keeps her going, in addition to knowing that she is prepared for situations she encounters because of her training, is a quote from the Talmud that explains Jews are not required to complete the work of repairing the world, but we are also not permitted to turn away from it.
“It is not our right to ignore the work we need to do to help people,” Failla said. ■
To learn more about or donate to TEXSAR, visit texsar.org.