Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 1, 2017.

The Rubicon Response

The aid organization’s incident management chief gives first hand accounts of the team’s rescue efforts in Houston.


Team Rubicon formed in 2010 to give veterans returning from war a new mission and sense of purpose. The idea was to use their unique skillsets to create a highly organized disaster response team that could be deployed on a moment’s notice anywhere in the world. Since then, the team has grown to about 70,000 volunteers—both veterans and civilians, including many active first responders—and has deployed to more than 215 disasters across the globe. Recent deployments include the recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and the deadly wildfires in Northern California. Rubicon’s global chief operations officer gave a keynote address at the 2015 NFPA Conference in Chicago.

Rubicon’s Incident Management Team Chief Nick Mrzlak arrived in Houston just after Harvey hit and worked to coordinate Rubicon’s response after the historic flooding there. Before joining the organization, he spent four years with the U.S. Navy, then worked as a firefighter paramedic in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. He's a retired battalion chief after 18 years of service with the Farmington (New Mexico) Fire Department, specializing in technical rescue and EMS. He started volunteering with Team Rubicon in 2012 and was hired in 2016. NFPA Journal recently spoke with Mrzlak about his ongoing work in Texas as part of the Team Rubicon response.

Home and car are underwater from hurricane flooding

His impressions on the impact of Hurricane Harvey

The magnitude of this disaster is huge. It’s definitely heartbreaking to see people whose lives been changed by losing everything. It’s really hard to put in perspective. The event has affected an estimated 500,000 people directly—when you see that type of loss it is just staggering. But the response by all of the aid organizations has been so great. The state of Texas is doing a marvelous job coordinating a professional effort between responders and all the aid organizations.

Homes are completely underwater from hurricane water
Team Rubicon meets in a room before heading out to assist in hurricane recovery

Mrzlak on Team Rubicon’s pre-incident planning

Our local members from the Houston area were formed into a pre-planning team that we used to get initial recon information in real time on the ground. We also have a national planning team located at our operations center in a brick and mortar facility in Grand Prairie, Texas. The local people on the ground and the national planning team both collected information from local jurisdictions, emergency managers, weather specialists and we plug that into a software program called Palantir, which is a modified military software. It takes all that data we collect and also a lot of publicly available economic and cultural data like average income, age of population, family populations, and it plugs it into a formula and live-time tracks it on mapping software. We are able to see overplayed on a map where the most vulnerable areas are and we use all that to create a plan.

Team Rubicon members rescue a family in a boat

On assisting with boat rescues

Our initial response in the Houston area was Monday, August 28, when city leaders called out for assistance with privately owned boats to help with rescue from the floodwater. We jumped on that and rapidly put together floodwater boat teams that went out and assisted with rescues. We had a lot of firefighters and search and rescue people out there who took time off their jobs to come down here and help. We had six boat crews working, each with three-to-five-man teams depending on the size of the boat. Those boat teams engaged in the area in the floodwaters through September 4. We did 73 rescues, 43 animal evacuations, and assisted some jurisdictions with the first phase of house searches by doing primary clearing of houses, making sure there were no people left.

Team Rubicon members rescue pets from flooded homes

In some areas 40-50 inches of water fell in 48 hours, but it still was a slow rise of water, not a lot of swift water. Just like the fire service we’re not going to risk a lot for what is already lost. We’ll risk a little to save a little and risk a lot to save lot. But our guys were not really in harms way. I didn’t hear anything that led me to believe there was any crazy heroic rescue stuff where someone risked a lot. They were able to easily motorboat through pretty much standing water and pick up residents and survivors. We were basically providing water taxis to move people from where stranded at get people to dry ground. From dry ground we were coordinating transportation to get them to shelters. We just helped out a lot of folks who were stuck in a bad spot, which was the standard for most of the rescue people out there.

Men shovel out much and mud from flooding in a home


His observations of the clean-up process

After the hurricane passed, my team stood up an incident management team. We are now operating in four or five different areas, from Rockport all the way to Beaumont, under an area command. Each of those areas has an average of 45 volunteers doing a lot of saw work, and helping to clear streets and remove debris. We are also doing some plow work and heavy equipment work in areas with heavy wind damage and trees down. But the main focus of our operations are what we call muck and gut operations, where you take everything out of a house at the four foot level, remove all furniture, floor coverings, drywall—everything is opened up and removed so we can stop the moisture. A lot of different volunteer organizations are helping with that. In this area we are looking at a projected 500,000 houses that are going to need some kind of assistance. A lot of them need to be torn down to the studs to prepare them to be rebuilt.

Man hauls out debris from hurricane damage
Group of people cut down fallen trees from a Hurricane

Mrzlak on how long Team Rubicon will stay in Texas

In Houston we are spinning up a really large response. We plan to keep at least 400 volunteers on the ground engaged for as long as there is a need to do the work. We anticipate working on the first phase of recovery, the muck and gut work, for two to three months, and we could be here for year or more working on second-phase recovery steps, such as mold mitigation and reconstruction. That’s new for us—we usually leave reconstruction to other organizations, but the need is so great here, and the response from donors has been so strong, that we’re committed to staying here in the Houston area to help people out.

Team Rubicon members stand next to a plane while being debriefed before heading to provide hurricane relief

His observations on the use of NFPA codes and standards

We structure our organization in a way local jurisdictions would understand, because for the most part it’s firefighters speaking to firefighters. We use the National Incident Management System and Incident Command System and structure our teams similar to how fire departments structure engine crews and medical crews, in order to best control all of our volunteers on the ground and keep really good accountability. We apply everything from fire training to disaster response training.

Man stands next to fire truck in overalls

Because so many of us have a background in the fire service or are even still in the fire service, the personal training most of us bring to the field is based on NFPA standards that apply to our home departments. We all use NFPA in our old jobs, we all know those codes, we’ve all been trained to those standards, and we are definitely applying them.

Children stand outside with signs of support to Team Rubicon members

Mrzlak on how he would like to see Team Rubicon develop

In the future we want to make Rubicon more of a city-level organization, so that each city has a basic readiness unit prepared and able to help at any time. We are a great source of manpower in any community and we want the community to be able to access these people whenever they’re needed. We’ve seen a huge influx of people coming to Team Rubicon—we’re getting about 200 new members a week signing up. We tend to grow very rapidly when disasters hit.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Photographs: Team Rubicon