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1 year later: Hillsborough County Fire Rescue's response to Surfside condo collapse

Seventy-two members of Hillsborough County Fire's Task Force 3 were deployed to Surfside in June 2021 to respond to a 12-story condo collapse.

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — On June 23, 2021, dozens of families in Surfside went to sleep not knowing what the next day would hold. Hours later, 98 of them would die.

It was in the early hours of June 24 that a portion of Champlain Towers South collapsed to the ground. The 12-story building became a mountain of concrete rubble.

RELATED: A month after Surfside condo collapse, 97 people dead, 1 person still unaccounted for

First responders from across the state answered the call for help, including a team of 72 Hillsborough County Fire Rescue members.

Captain Dusty Mascaro was one of them.

He and his team removed chunks of concrete bucket by bucket while searching for people who survived the collapse. It was an experience that changed him as a first responder and a person.

“This one absolutely was a different animal," Mascaro said. "Hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime career call.”

He added, "You are working, but your day is not nearly as bad as a lot of the people that are on the site there. You try to shelve all those emotions to honor the people who were in the building and the family members that were surrounding it."

Mascaro said he and his fellow firefighters were all hugging their families a little bit tighter after a long nine days in Surfside. 

The 72 men and women sent to Miami-Dade county were split into two teams, working in 12-hour shifts for nine days straight. 

"When we got there, it was just a bit of sensory overload... And then we just tried to fold ourselves into the business that was already being done," Mascaro explained. 

Hillsborough County Task Force 3 is a statewide asset, ready to respond at a moment's notice. 

The equipment they use represents some of just a select few pieces available across the state. It's filled top to bottom with specialty equipment for collapse response. One item used in the response at Surfside is called a Delsar System. It's used to detect the quietest of moments, like a person trapped under rubble, trying to signal for help. 

First responders also contract with towing companies for concrete removal. The fire departments don't have the equipment needed to remove large slabs. Those partnerships are crucial to a lifesaving response. 

But other specialty equipment is deployed as well.

"So we drill in the concrete and we have these search cameras and telescope out until we find our victim and the orientation of our victim," Mascaro explained. 

Firefighters are training year-round so that when a 12-story condo collapses, they're ready. 

"We responded immediately, the first day," Chief Dennis Jones said. "And we were working on the rubble pile with the two Miami FEMA teams side by side."

Jones was on the ground helping in Surfside. "Lifting off huge slabs of concrete, steel beams, moving rocks piece by piece," he recalls.

He said one person on his team was even full-time dedicated to sharpening the blades used to chisel through the cement. 

Being a part of the task force is a dangerous job, with the risk of unstable piles of rubble and large metal rebar spikes sticking up everywhere. 

"The biggest thing I was concerned with was someone taking a misstep," Mascaro said.

After the Surfside condo collapse, Gov. Ron DeSantis allocated $10 million dollars to task force response funding. That money helps teams, including Hillsborough County's teams, in buying and replacing equipment so that they're always prepared for whatever may come.

In the months that followed the condo collapse, Hillsborough County Fire and Rescue created a new chief position to address mental health needs on the job. 

Firefighters and all first responders are often seeing people on their worst days, rushing toward the disaster most would run from. And with that comes a toll on mental health. 

Jose Prado is now the Health and Safety Chief at Hillsborough County Fire. He came out of retirement just to take the job. 

"I believe the position has been overdue for a long time," Prado said. 

Prado has been holding the new title since November 2021. And he has the full support of Fire Chief Jones. Firefighters answer calls for help at all hours of the day. And now, when they need help, they have someone to call too.

Depression, anxiety, and PTSD are all on the rise among firefighters and other first responders, Prado said. 

"We have had mental issues in the past that we didn't really know how to deal with," Prado said. "The future and our profession, as far as first responders, police, and military, we are seeing a high level of mental illness."

It's a job that doesn't always end when the shift does. Mascaro shared the impact of responding to Surfside had on him personally.

"So it was overwhelming for everybody," Mascaro said. "And I think certainly it changed. It changed everybody to a degree."

Responding to tragedy is a part of the job. Asking for help isn't always easy. Prado said with his programs, breaking the stigma surrounding mental health is his biggest obstacle.

"For people to reach out for help, for people to talk about the situation that they encounter out in the street," Prado said. "And I think we're moving the wall when it comes to breaking that stigma...."

Chief Prado has led the way in developing a peer support program and a critical incidents management team. He works with his team to shape their programs to best fit the needs of the firefighters responding to emergencies. 

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