To become a member of the Civil Air Patrol, visit their website at www.gocivilairpatrol.com or call Robert Landrum at 423.827.9095
Earthquakes below 3 on the Richter scale — too small to be felt — shiver through areas of Tennessee on a regular basis, but officials say a devastating shake registering in the 7 range is all but inevitable.
That’s when the trained eyes of Civil Air Patrol volunteers will be essential.
This week, volunteers spent several hours flying tours over roads that one day could be lifelines for areas that Tennessee Emergency Management Agency officials say eventually will be rocked by intense earthquakes.
“Hopefully, out of those roads, we’ll be able to find routes that will let us be where we need to be,” Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt said. “It’s a big challenge. It really is.”
More than 56,000 adults and teens volunteer for CAP nationwide. The organization provides a local, quickly available trained force ready to help state and local governments with aerial and ground rescue and support.
The Air Force supplies the planes, while volunteers pay costs roughly equivalent to the fuel they burn on training runs.
Most recently, the group was called in to take photos of tornado damage the day after the April 27 storms tore through the Chattanooga area.
“It looked from a distance like a half-mile-wide lawn mower just plowed through a straight line,” CAP 2nd Lt. Larry Stewert said.
Stewert shot the photos while two other CAP members flew the plane and coordinated the mission with people on the ground.
“We all had a little excitement that we were headed out on a mission instead of an exercise,” he said. “But when you actually see it, it’s very sobering.”
Those sobering experiences are exactly what CAP volunteers spent this week training for.
Three fault lines run through West Tennessee, creating the New Madrid Seismic Zone. In the event of a quake, Heidt said, Chattanooga could feel some shakes and may lose power, but planners estimate 1,500 daily truckloads of supplies would need to move through the hardest-hit areas.
That’s where the Civil Air Patrol will play a vital role. After an earthquake, many roads are blocked by downed trees. The CAP will fly over several different predetermined supply routes, searching for passable routes to those in need.
“You’re looking at 3,000 to 6,000 fatalities in West Tennessee, and that’s just a starter,” Heidt said. “If you’ve got 20,000 people injured, there’s not enough ambulances that can get them all out.”
CAP Maj. David Spears said training is key to meeting the challenge.
“We train and train and train and it’s like the army; nobody wants bad things to happen,” he said. “But when we do get hit, we want to go out and do what we’ve been trained to do.”
Spears has flown since he was old enough to get his pilot’s license at 17. The 53-year-old has been with the auxiliary civilian branch of the Air Force for nine years and has flown about 20 missions searching for downed planes and missing people.
“I’ve always been just thrilled with flying. It’s what I love to do,” he said. “To be able to fly with that passion and be able to volunteer; we have folks who give up a lot of time to fly.”
CAP Capt. Robert Landrum said “a lot of time” is an understatement.
To become a full-fledged member of the Civil Air Patrol, volunteers need to master a variety of survival and rescue skills including treating weather-related injuries, spotting a car from a moving aircraft 1,000 feet in the air and coordinating searches for missing planes or people with ground and air crews.
“It’s an extensive process,” he said. “There’s only one standard: You can either do it or you can’t.”
Landrum has been with the organization since his now-teenage son told him about it four years ago. Since then, the two have become highly involved in the group, ready to respond whenever a disaster hits the state.
“You’re not starting from the word ‘go,’” he said. “You’ve got to be prepared for it when lives are on the line.”