Masters of Disaster
When trouble hits, the First Response Team fleet rolls in
By Paul Hartley
A tornado rips through Albertville, Ala., leaving rubble where once there were homes. Flood waters overtake parts of Windsor, N.C., leaving people trapped in their cars. In cities all over the country, when nature turns destructive and leaves residents standing in the midst of a disaster area, the First Response Team of America arrives in a fleet of customized trucks and other vehicles to help — at no charge.
They are a small group of trained and seasoned relief workers who travel from one colossal disaster to another, helping with everything from search and rescue to road clearing to debris removal. On several occasions, they’ve even dug graves. The crew is on the road almost constantly, living in motels or municipal bunkhouses. Its itinerary is event-driven and guided with the help of Dr. Greg Forbes, severe weather expert for the Weather Channel.
The concept for First Response Team was formed in 2006, when Tad Agoglia was working as a contract hauler for the federal government. In that capacity, he and his crew helped clean up coastal regions struck by hurricanes, usually arriving on the scene two or three months after the damage was done. Although the work was lucrative, making Agoglia a millionaire when he was just in his twenties, it wasn’t especially fulfilling for him.
“I wasn’t satisfied just running my business,” he says. “It was a successful, money-making company, but I thought there should be more to life. When I began to volunteer, a couple of things changed. First, I was happy and had a real feeling of accomplishment. Second, I got caught up in the moment, assisting people at times they needed it most. All of a sudden, I had something meaningful to do every day.”
Agoglia’s initial foray into volunteerism occurred in May 2007, when he headed to Greensburg, Kan., immediately after an F5 — the most powerful category — tornado ripped through the small town, reducing almost every building to splinters and dust. He says it was a transformative event.
“I remember stopping for fuel before getting into Greensburg,” Agoglia says. “As I walked inside the station to pay, a guy came up and asked where I was going. When I told him, he began describing his daughter (a veterinarian in Greensburg) and begged me to look for her. It was a surreal moment, and I realized what it was like to be a first responder. I’d never been that close to a disaster so soon after it occurred.”
By the autumn of ’07, Agoglia had converted his for-profit business, Disaster Recovery Solutions, to a nonprofit organization, funded mainly by the money he’d made as a contractor. The new group’s first official mission was in Southern California, where, in October of that year, wildfires scorched the landscape and torched hundreds of homes north and east of San Diego. The “team” at the time consisted of one truck, two men, a lot of vague goals and an abundance of ambition.
The operation has expanded significantly during the three years since, thanks to the contributions of individual and corporate donors.
The fleet now consists of four trucks: a 2003 Peterbilt Model 379 road tractor that pulls a 53-foot Ledwell stepdeck dovetail trailer, a 2008 Peterbilt Model 335 straight truck fitted with a 26-foot dry box, a 2008 Peterbilt Model 367 that’s fitted with a 25-foot dump box and Prentice loader and pulls a 25-foot Great Lakes trailer, and a 2011 Peterbilt Model 365 straight truck fitted with a 23-foot dump box.
Loaded onto these rigs are two hovercraft, a Cat skid-steer loader, 400Kw generator, “eight-acre” light tower, 2,000 gallon-per-minute water pump, fueling tanks, welder, plasma cutter, torches, underwater cameras, rubble cameras, ice rescue gear, tools and a full parts inventory for all equipment.
Among the major corporate donors, which include PACCAR, Cat and Terex, the biggest is Peterbilt of Baltimore (a.k.a. The Pete Store). The company has provided First Response Team with four trucks plus material and financial support during the past two years. Agoglia is still amazed when he recalls his initial meeting with Pete Store owner John Arscott.
“I first visited the dealership in 2009, cash in hand, ready to buy,” Agoglia says. “After discussing my equipment needs with a salesman, he suggested I return the next day to speak with the company’s president, who might be able to offer a better price. I came back, met John and told him about our team. He said, ‘I’m not going to take your money. I’m going to give you three trucks.’ He then brought me to the parking lot and said, ‘Take the ones you want. They’ll come with license plates and insurance.’ He even offered to paint the trucks in our colors.”
The Pete Store’s contributions didn’t stop there. Six months after the first three trucks were delivered, Agoglia called Arscott and asked for another, this one to work in Haiti, which had been devastated by a magnitude 7 earthquake a few days earlier. Arscott’s response was quick and simple: “You’ll have it in a couple of days. Come to Baltimore and pick it up.”
Arscott attributes his involvement with First Response Team to two factors: the integrity and selflessness of Agoglia, and a personal belief that “if you’re fortunate in life, you should give something back to help others.” He dismisses the notion that his company might benefit from some level of positive publicity. “The only folks who really know about this are our employees,” he says. “We don’t discuss it with customers. It wasn’t done for any economic benefit. That was never my goal.”
Arscott’s intentions aside, there’s no denying the bold visual impact of multiple black Peterbilts, bedecked with polished aluminum wheels and pulsing emergency lights, rolling into a community mere hours after a catastrophe has occurred. Regardless of brand, this is a powerful mental image, the kind that product managers and marketing executives dream about.
To the people whose lives have just been destroyed or derailed, though, nameplates probably don’t mean much. Victims of disasters are completely focused on more pressing issues, such as finding family members and neighbors, helping the injured, opening roads, restoring basic services. These are the efforts through which First Response Team leaves its most lasting impression.
Well, almost. Townsfolk also remember that the team charges nothing for its services — an offer that’s usually met with skepticism from local officials expecting to be fleeced by a group of opportunistic outsiders. The reluctance typically subsides after a few phone calls or an Internet search to verify the team’s “cred.” But long after the job is done, some people still have a hard time believing there was no charge for the men and machines.
“You know, as far as I’m concerned, Tad was sent here by God,” says Frankie Baker, fire chief in Norfolk, Ark., a town struck by massive flooding in 2008. “He came here when we really needed him, did all this work from daylight to darkness, then just left after the crisis was over — and he never asked for a penny. He’s a true Christian.”
Agoglia’s beliefs are, in fact, rooted in Christianity — he has a master’s degree in theology and, at one time, planned to be a priest — but he says First Response Team is not a religious organization.
“My work now is unrelated to my faith,” he says. “However, one of the things I gleaned from those years in school was that kindness and caring are some of the best attributes we can have. I’ve always tried, in various ways, to serve others.
“I spent all my money to start this non-profit group, and I don’t regret it at all. I might not have any material possessions, but I do have this cause that makes a big difference in people’s lives.”