Remembering May 20: Untold stories of heroism and how firefighters handle chaos

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MOORE, Okla. - It's been nearly five years since an EF-5 tornado tore through the city of Moore, leaving loss and destruction in its wake.

At its peak, the May 20 EF-5 tornado was more than a mile wide with winds up to 210 miles per hour.

"For us, in here, it's not so physical much as it is mental. Keeping up with it all like a humongous puzzle, trying to figure out where everybody's at and accounting for everybody and knowing where you have them assigned, and all that kind of stuff," said Ryan Marlar, assistant chief of the Moore Fire Department.

Assistant Chief Scott Lance, with the Moore Fire Department, has worked for the department for 34 years. Both Marlar and Lance were the puzzle masters on May 20.

Right after a tornado, like debris, the puzzle pieces are a jumbled mess. Lance has covered several tornadoes and says, "no matter how good you are at it, no matter how experienced you are at it, those first 10 to 12 hours, it's going to be chaos."

Marlar has been with the department for 22 years.

On May 20, he was one of the first to arrive at Station One, which became the makeshift command center after the tornado hit.

"We were just able to bring into this large bay all of the people that were the key players, and it was very simple to be able to walk across the room and make contact with them," he said.

Both assistant chiefs worked the May 3, 1999 tornado. In fact, Lance's house was hit by the EF-5 tornado in 1999.

"This was so much bigger and so much more devastating for the city of Moore than in 1999 because it just basically clipped the corner, the northwest corner if you will, of Moore. And, this one came right through the middle of town. So, we had a lot more devastation," Lance said.

Amidst the chaos, organization is key. Marlar said he used dry erase boards as command boards to maintain accountability.

Right after the tornado, hundreds of people swarmed the command center, wanting to help.

"You had other agencies here, other fire departments coming in and asking for an official assignment, so we could put them in areas that we knew needed to be looked at that were not getting attention yet," Marlar said.

In the fire service, it's a known courtesy to check in with command first. However, a few companies did not, which added to the chaos.

"There's nothing worse than people self dispatching, if you will," Lance said.

In the hours immediately following, crews were dispatched to priority calls and primary searches while the Midwest City Fire Department took over staging in large, city parking lots - like Lowe's.

"When the sun goes down, it allows us to work through the night to come up with a plan for the next day," Marlar said.

One of the biggest improvements from past disasters was bringing in the big guns; Lance said calling in the Oklahoma Incident Management Team is the best decision of the day. He said the team takes care of planning, logistics and finance administration.

The Incident Management Team is made up of multiple agencies, like the Oklahoma State Department of Health, Oklahoma Highway Patrol and electric companies.

The team helped a small department with the first night and heavy lifting machinery. Marlar said the work never stopped.

"There were areas of this event that they went around the clock, 24 hours, for the search, the rescue, the recovery aspect," he said.

The tornado knocked out cellphone towers, which hindered communications.

Marlar said everyone relied on their radio system but even they ran into problems.

"Some of the repeaters in town were affected, and then guys in the field were out there working long hours at a time and started running short on batteries for them," he said.

Thankfully, the Oklahoma Incident Management Team came up with a patch by prioritizing Moore's radio traffic down to Norman's radio towers.

Miscommunication also led to a temporary doubling of the death count, which was corrected the next morning.

Out-of-state reinforcements arrived the next day by the truck load to perform a thorough grid-type search. Marlar said teams from Nebraska and Tennessee showed up a few days after the tornado, specializing in urban search and rescue.

With extra help on the way, Lance said he could focus on his firefighters.

"We started trying to make schedules of letting guys get out of here for 12 hours, and then we'd bring them back in here for 12 hours. Let them get some rest and go home," he said.

With each disaster is a new lesson learned.

"On the backside, thoughts and ideas were collected and a general discussion was had on what we did and how we could do things better," Marlar said.

"I think this one was very successful. If I said that we dropped the ball in one area, I would have to say with our staging," Lance said.

Since the tornado, the department has become even more proactive, taking several search and rescue, and structural collapse courses by Texas A&M.

"Every time, we're going to learn something, we're going to get better at it, we're going to be more efficient next time," Lance said.

In Moore, it seems like it's not a matter of if but when.

"I don't want to believe that it will happen again, but it just seems to occur over and over for us," Marlar said.

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