DUTY CALLS: I started as a volunteer firefighter in New Jersey in 1984. My father and grandfather were volunteers, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. As I got older and decided to be a career firefighter, I applied to Fairfax Fire Department. The fact that it's the country's 20th largest fire department and has an urban search and rescue team influenced my choice. I've been with Fairfax for nine years now and with search and rescue for two years.

FRONT LINES: After Katrina, I was sent to Biloxi, Miss., with a smaller team (34 people) that could move quickly, assess the situation and do reconnaissance. The destruction was intense. While I had seen film footage of tsunamis and was prepared on one level, there is nothing that can prepare you emotionally.

MISSISSIPPI BLUES: I'm not sure how to impress upon people the amount of damage I saw. It is something you have to see and still can't believe. There was complete destruction. In the city we did everything on foot, walking from one search grid to the next looking for survivors. We were lucky that the area we searched had done a good job evacuating and we found only one victim who perished.

FIRST AID: I am a paramedic, and my position on the team is medical specialist. My first responsibility is the team's health and safety, and second is helping any victims and delivering them to local health professionals. Our base was set up near the ice and water distribution center so when we had an hour of down time, we would assist local workers by handing out water and treating people who needed medical attention. During those first couple of days, the roads would get backed up at four and five in the morning as people lined up for water. It looked like rush hour in D.C.

HELPING HELPERS: There are a lot of stories when a disaster of this nature and scale occurs, but one that really sticks with me is that of a retired firefighter. He had evacuated the area and come back to check on his home. His car had slid into a ditch and we were able to pull him out. He became very emotional because at one time he was doing the helping, and now he was on the other side of the line. I don't think I will ever forget that.

BE PREPARED: When a disaster occurs, whether it be natural or man-made, listen to local emergency officials. If they say evacuate, evacuate. In general, it's good for individuals and families to have an evacuation plan. The plan should include a family meeting spot in the event that you aren't all together when something happens. If for some reason you can't evacuate, make certain you have plenty of water, batteries, nonperishable foods, a cellphone and a battery-powered radio to get information. Whatever the situation, having a plan and being prepared is essential.

As told to Karen Hart

Edwards (foreground) and colleague Rex Strickland search for survivors in a garden apartment complex in Mississippi.