Ignoring the 45 mph gusts of wind and stinging sheets of bitter cold rain that battered Montgomery County Monday night, Sgt. Kevin Parker turned his truck onto East Gude Drive, revving the engine up as he raced towards his first call of a busy night.
As supervisor of the county police's Emergency Services Unit, Parker leads three full-time staff and 21 decentralized officers, all of whom were called in to prepare for Hurricane Sandy earlier this week. Comprised of a fleet of heavy-duty box-style equipment trucks and modified pick-ups, the ESU serves as a sort of mobile utility belt for county patrol officers, able to deliver any piece of equipment, from high-powered floodlights and ladders to simpler supplies like bottled water or spare radios, at a moment's notice.
"The main goal for us is to be out there to assist the officer," Parker said. "Whatever we can do to keep that patrol officer safe, whether itís helping with a downed tree or, after the winds die down, getting a few lights set up at an intersection where power is out."
Starting the evening shift at 6 p.m. Monday, Parker and his crew were already receiving calls for downed trees during their 5:30 p.m. briefing as winds began to pick up all across the county, reaching gusts of 45 mph. While a typical day sees the ESU responding to fatal traffic collisions, searches for missing persons and even homicides investigations, the true value of the unit is highlighted during weather emergencies and large-scale crisis.
"If we can clear a tree out and it takes us a half hour, it's still better than having two patrol officers sitting for an hour waiting for a work crew to show up," Parker said as his team set up at the first call of the busy evening, a tree that had fallen across Turkey Foot Road in Darnestown. "As the hurricane goes on, so do the domestics and regular calls for service."
Stepping out of his car into the driving rain, Parker met with the patrol officer who called in the blockage when he found the tree blocking his way to a call for service. Parker got the details as he directed his unit to grab a few chainsaws and begin sectioning off pieces of the trunk.
"I wouldn't even have called you guys, ordinarily," the patrol officer shouted to Parker over the roaring wind by way of an apology. "But it's on a blind curve and I didn't want to have to worry about anybody driving around too fast and not seeing it in time."
Sure enough, just minutes after the patrol car left to pick up its next call, a driver flew around the sharp turn and slammed on the brakes as the flashing lights from the ESU trucks warned the driver that they would need to find another route.
By 7:48 p.m. the ESU was back in service, the tree having been cut into more manageable pieces and hauled off the roadway by a county contracting crew driving a Bobcat. Stepping back into his truck, Parker smiled in spite of the miserable weather and forest debris hitting the cab.
"That was a good officer, there," he said as his already weary eyes scanned his laptop for the next call. "He knows how to prioritize; we've worked storms before where the ECC dispatchers have called me and said they had 164 tree calls, and you can't just start working your way down the list when that happens; you have to prioritize them: Is it on a blind curve? Is it blocking a paramedic from an emergency call? Those have to go first."
The unit's next call is even more pressing. As Parker and his crew finished with the tree, police and fire rescue personnel were dispatched at 8:16 p.m. to a water rescue near a flooded bridge off Davis Mill Road in Germantown.
Capt. Luther Reynolds, commander of the Germantown police district, called Parker on his cell phone to brief him on the situation. On their way toward the rescue, two county patrol cars found their routes blocked in both directions by fallen trees along the heavily-wooded roadways in the area.
"Be careful," Reynolds' voice came over the radio. "If it's too much, call it off. We can always replace a cruiser."
Another benefit of the ESU is the training and expertise its officers bring to any given scenario. Each truck carries at least two team members including a tactical medic experienced in first aid and cross-trained with the county's SWAT team. On average ESU offers have been on the force 16 years, Parker said.
"So when this truck arrives at the scene it brings over 30 years of police experience to help handle that call safely and get the situation resolved," he said.
The team also includes has cross-training by PEPCO and other utility personnel to help the unit understand when even its most impressive resources might not be enough. Unfortunately, with wind gusts reaching nearly 50 mph and a downed electrical wire blocking the easiest access to the cruiser, Parker was forced to back off and wait for better conditions to free the trapped cruiser.
"It's nice to have that vote of confidence from the commander," Parker said, shaking his head as he felt his 7,000-plus pound truck buffeting about in the stiff winds along I-270. "But we're not doing anything in these winds. We'll have to come back to that cruiser."
After a quick re-fitting back at the unit's temporary garage space on Southlawn Lane in Rockville, the trucks were on their way back to the Goshen Park area. Unwilling to have his men face the danger of downed power lines in the vicinity, Parker called on another of his unit's many resources; a strong relationship with utility work crew officials.
By 11 p.m. a work crew consisting of Pepco and Potomac Edison experts had arrived to shut down power to the downed lines. The work crew also brought a Gradall Excavator, a massive construction apparatus that quickly manhandled the fallen trees away from the cruiser.
By 1 a.m. the road was once again clear and Parker pulled his truck up next to the power company crew and his own exhausted officers.
"All right boys, we got your cruiser out," the work crew leader said with a tired salute as he pulled the excavator back out onto Brink Road. Parker's men watched it leave with an envious look.
"So when are we going to get one of those, K.P.?" Officer Carl Holland asked Parker with a smile.
Before he could answer, the radio interrupted with an insistent beep. The next call awaited.