GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — All eyes were on Florida as Hurricane Ian took aim at its west coast and was expected to cross over the center of the peninsula in the coming days.
One West Michigan firefighters has special concerns because he has friends and family in the path of the hurricane. Grand Rapids Fire Department Capt. Bill Smith is a native Floridian and has three sisters who live on Florida’s west coast.
“One of my sisters, Debbie, is in the line of fire with Hurricane Ian,” he said. “She and her husband, a retired firefighter, have made a correct choice and have evacuated from that area yesterday. So they aren’t in harm’s way, but their property certainly is.”
He’s staying touch with other family members and friends through social media.
Growing up in Florida gave Smith a certain respect for the weather. He lived through Andrew, Earl and other hurricanes and severe storms.
“Hurricanes, tropical depressions coming through since I was a kid, it’s nothing new. But you have to take them seriously, provision for them and when they tell you to evacuate, take that seriously as well,” Smith said.
It’s one thing to live with the threat of severe weather like Ian. It’s another to be wearing a badge when it hits. Smith began his firefighting career with the Tarpon Springs Fire Department, between Port Richey and Clearwater on Florida’s Central Gulf Coast, in 1989. When storms approached, he and his fellow first responders didn’t have the luxury of evacuating.
“I think maybe I take it a little more to heart because I know the risk. I’ve been in those situations where we know we have to keep an eye on the weather and we still have to respond,” Smith said. “It is significant for me and it does tug at my heartstrings a little bit because I know what it is to respond to those situations and what risks were taking as responders to help our citizens.”
One of the toughest parts is being away when the family needs you most, but it’s part of the job.
“They were at home. They were experiencing weather as well. But I had to be on duty and take care of our community,” Smith said.
Six Grand Rapids firefighters, part of a statewide task force, could be deployed to the aftermath of Ian. The six are members of Michigan Task Force 1, which is made up of crews from agencies across the state. They’re firefighters, paramedics and others with the skills and equipment needed to handle the worst of the worst, from rescuing people trapped by swift waters to freeing them from a building collapse.
Michigan Task Force 1 is part of a nationwide network of first responders that the Federal Emergency Management Agency can call upon during major disasters. It has been called up several times in the last few years, mainly for hurricane response.
“They are well versed in water rescue and tech rescue,” Smith said. “So just like when we responded to Katrina in 2005 with some of our members, they go down to supplement the response forces that are already there, probably taxed. They’re at their limit, and assist with the emergency.”