Coming Home

A homecoming celebration in Orlando saluted the first crews to return after their critical deployment to the hardest hit areas of the storm. Clermont Fire Department’s Lt. Jeremiah Plasters was greeted with handshakes, hugs and a welcome poster after 10 days in some of Northwest Florida’s hardest hit areas, including Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe. He served with Florida Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Task Force 4, under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

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“It’s something that will humble me until the day I die,” Plasters said. “I hopefully was able to touch a lot of lives while I was up there and they touched me as well.”

Central Florida fire departments and their families lined the streets to wave and applaud as the task force of about 40 firefighters from seven fire departments arrived, as well as two Ambulance Strike Teams and a MARC (Multi-Agency Radio Communications) unit.

“We were glad to see Lt. Plasters return home safe,” City Manager Darren Gray said. “He has made the City of Clermont proud with his service and sacrifice during this devastating time for the Panhandle.”

Plasters helped search for around 40 people who’d been confirmed missing in the area. His crew used dogs, search cameras and other tools to scour rubble for bodies. Collapsed multi-story buildings looked “like matchsticks on the ground,” he recalled.

“It was catastrophic,” Plasters said. “To be able to go in and recover a body and return them to their family so that they have some peace at the end of the day was probably one of the most moving moments… Doing searches and talking to people who did stay and people who were coming back to see that they lost everything – being able to share a moment with them and tell them that we’re going to rebuild and that we’re there for them – it’s definitely humbling.”

The incessant sounds of smoke detectors in the wreckage beeping for days haunted Plasters. He described an overwhelming presence of helicopters, Humvees, the National Guard, state troopers and others traversing the area to help. Plasters slept about two-and-a-half hours a night at their base at Sacred Heart Hospital.

It was Plasters’ first full deployment with Task Force 4. As exhausting as it was, he said the crew stayed energized by their motivation to help.

The Clermont Fire Department had a strong showing of support at the homecoming event held at the US&R Offices and Training Facility: Assistant Chief of Operations William Harrison, Assistant Chief of Administration Kathy Johnston, Battalion Chief Tom Bennett, and Fire Capt. Lindsay Judah. Plasters’ mother, Carole Foote, of Orlando, also greeted him.

Plasters hugged and thanked each one.

“I’m proud to be a City of Clermont firefighter and I’m proud to be on Task Force 4,” said Plasters, who has worked for the city since 2005. “I couldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the support of the fire chiefs and the City of Clermont, all of the support from the citizens at Clermont. If I wasn’t employed by Clermont in the first place, I would have never had the opportunity to participate.”

Task Force 4 specializes in structural collapse, swift water rescue, wide area search, and hazardous materials.

More than 140 fire rescue responders from Central Florida were deployed in the wake of the storm providing lifesaving efforts. It is believed to be the largest fire rescue deployment since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Meanwhile, Clermont Fire Marshal Jennifer Pierce deployed on Oct. 12 to the State of Florida’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. Clermont Firefighters/Paramedics Mike Rock and Blake McCorkle departed Oct. 13 with Lake County’s Strike Team for an estimated 10-day deployment, stopping first in Panama City. More Clermont firefighters may deploy soon.

The City of Clermont also came to the rescue in an unusual but important way in the wake of Hurricane Michael: helping restore about 200 Florida law enforcement agencies’ access to a critical software they use to file traffic crash and citation reports from the road through Traffic and Criminal Software (TraCS). Housed in the Panhandle, the servers went down when Hurricane Michael hit. Clermont Police Department is temporarily housing their servers.

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