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Company Founder Viewed as Angel in Destroyed Regions

Wed December 30, 2009 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

“Tad Agoglia is almost looked upon as an angel here in Parkersburg, Iowa,” said city administrator Chris Luhring. Agoglia doesn’t have wings, as it turns out, but his story does have a Christmas feel.

Two years ago, Agoglia converted his profitable disaster response and cleanup company to a nonprofit foundation. He left his home and went on the road where he spends all year donating his expertise to stricken communities and seeking support and training for his team. Several leading equipment manufacturers and construction industry companies have caught the giving spirit and are backing him with money and machinery.

“When you meet him, you’ll quickly see that his passion is unprecedented,” said Darrin Foulk, vice president of Cleveland Brothers Equipment Co., which has Caterpillar dealerships across Pennsylvania.

Foulk speaks from experience. He met Agoglia when the latter entered a Cleveland Brothers branch in Lancaster to buy a piece of equipment. The company executive overheard Agoglia’s story and invited him to dinner.

By the time they folded their napkins and pushed away from the table, Agoglia had been offered a Cat skid steer under cost as well as donated cables for his generator and a full complement of spare parts for his mechanical repair truck. Not finished, Foulk rang up two other equipment manufacturers and persuaded them to help out with major pieces of equipment.

“These are the unique kinds of people I have been meeting lately,” Agoglia said, reflecting on the $800,000 in equipment received in the last two months. “I can’t explain it. They offer their help with no strings attached and the team keeps responding.”

Changing Focus

Before Tad Skylar Agoglia was founder of a charitable organization, he was president of a profitable firm called Disaster Recovery Solutions. It basically was a loader and dump truck company specializing in storm debris. The company would show up a month or two after a natural disaster and earn premium dollars clearing streets and carting away the debris of people’s lives.

Disaster Recovery’s first disaster was Hurricane Isabel, which struck the East Coast in 2003. The company’s last for-profit cleanup was in 2007. By then, Agoglia had experienced a change of heart.

He had come to believe that what these splintered communities really needed was not a clean-up crew pulling in a month after disaster struck. Rather, the storm victims and beleaguered local leaders needed volunteer assistance and they needed it immediately, the kind of help that only an experienced and equipment-ready professional like Agoglia could offer.

He acted on this personal revelation in May of 2007 after an E5 tornado virtually destroyed the small Kansas town of Greensburg. To the dismay of his employees, Agoglia ordered his equipment off a profitable job elsewhere and driven to Greensburg.

“That was the pivotal moment,” the businessman- turned-activist recalled of his Kansas experience. “I was using my crane to clear a street in Greensburg so firefighters could get to their equipment. I saw that people emerging from basements were given hope when they realized someone had come to help them quickly. At that moment, I decided that no longer am I going to use my equipment to make money. I’m going to help people. And I’ve never looked back.”

For the first year and a half, Agoglia funded his altruistic work out of his personal savings before reorganizing the company as a nonprofit. Now — two-and-a-half years and 27 storms later — he heads an emergency recovery organization called First Response Team of America.

His commitment to his charitable work is rooted in conviction that openly guided him through his college years. Agoglia has a master’s degree in theology and was on track to enter a life of ministry when he concluded he was meant to do something else. A disaster relief business was his choice of alternate vocations.

At the age of 30, however, he said he “kind of arrived as a small business owner and I realized that I wanted something more than just to make money. When I saw the need in these communities, I decided with my background and capabilities that I could help. There is something very valuable in life in caring for people.”

His benefactors in the heavy equipment industry have caught the same vision. Due to their support, First Response’s equipment will be state of the art when Agoglia heads into another year of disasters.

Working With the Best

The new equipment is an upgrade of the specialty tools Agoglia developed as a disaster response businessman. His Disaster Recovery Solutions operated oversized tandem truck-trailers with a loader attached to the main unit. The company excelled in efficient removal of debris and cleaned up in more ways than one.

The same efficiency on an even bigger scale is a hallmark of his First Response Team. His latest generation of equipment rides on the backs of three new Peterbilt trucks donated by the Knoxville, Tenn., branch of The Pete Store dealer group.

A Model 335 Peterbilt truck hauls First Response’s mechanical support equipment and parts. A Model 367 powers a stretched-frame tandem unit with three steerable axles and 120-cu. yd. (91-cu m) capacity. A Prentice 2124 loader — donated by the Forestry Division of Caterpillar — rides piggyback at the rear of the truck and is outfitted as needed with a grapple, donated by Heiden Grapple, or a hydraulic crushing head.

The third truck — a Model 375 Peterbilt — pulls a drop-deck trailer donated by Ledwell & Son Enterprises in Texarkana, Tex. It is loaded with top-of-the-line equipment donated by manufacturers, including:

• Cat 229C compact skid steer track loader

• Godwin CD150 pump that will push almost 2,000 gallons of water per minute

• 400 kW Cat generator capable of powering up critically needed buildings such as a public shelter, skilled nursing facility or emergency department.

• Terex AL4000 light tower with a diesel engine and generating unit that can light up seven-and-a-half acres for nighttime work and security.

• Towmaster T-110DTG detachable gooseneck trailer, a second Towmaster trailer and a T-16T drop deck tilt.

• A Miller plasma cutter and Big Blue Air Pak welder.

“I have to have the best equipment on the market,” Agoglia said of his fleet’s mechanical upgrade. “If something goes down, someone’s life might be depending on it. I can’t show up in a 1984 dump truck. Under these circumstances, if the equipment goes down, it’s not profit being lost, it’s people’s lives. There’s no time to stop and fix unreliable equipment.”

All the Right Reasons

Neither the Team nor its industry supporters are in it for publicity. Agoglia believes in just showing up and pitching in. Agoglia is, in fact, adamant that the assistance be given communities for the right reason.

“If I do the work under the umbrella of a nonprofit, people really know we are not there to make money. They don’t have to worry. We’re only there to help.”

He said companies that he’s approached — or that have taken the initiative to contact him — also are in it for the right reason.

“All of these companies say, ’Take this. We don’t want anything in return. We don’t want a photo. We don’t need a billboard. We don’t want names on our trucks. We don’t want anything. Just keep doing what you’re doing.’”

“A lot of people want publicity, but Tad just doesn’t work like that. He flies under the radar,” Parkersburg’s Luhring said, looking back on Agoglia’s surprise appearance in the community in late May 2008 after a tornado struck the town.

Luhring was Parkersburg’s police chief when the tornado killed seven people and destroyed 220 homes. He met Agoglia after someone told him a big truck was blocking the road and Luhring went to investigate.

“Tad told me, ’I’m here to help. I’ll help in any way I can,’” Luhring recalled. “Well, I’m pretty well versed in construction and I realized we didn’t have a truck like Tad’s. I knew that truck could do things we couldn’t do.”

First, Agoglia used the grapple on the truck-mounted loader to gently sift the ruins of Parkersburg’s city hall till they found cemetery rolls that would allow the community to bury its dead. Then he used the loader to dig the graves, working alongside some high school boys. It was a scenario Agoglia never imagined would become part of his life.

“I don’t know how to explain this but these are the situations that made me walk away from my for-profit company so easily,” he said.

Later that year, he stopped back in Parkersburg while on a trip and was persuaded to attend a high school assembly that was happening that afternoon. Luhring said high school students recognized Agoglia after he walked into the assembly area and spontaneously gave him a standing ovation.

Luhring, who became city administrator just last month, said the First Response Team’s impact on the community is lasting.

“Parkersburg has been labeled the most successful disaster recovery community in the nation. Tad drove that train right after the storm. He made it possible.”

Small Team, Big Hearts

Agoglia’s entire team consists of five people including himself. Those who came over with him from his for-profit company took a 70-percent pay cut.

Tim Wilkowicz became a team member when Agoglia was converting his company to nonprofit. Wilkowicz, 22, said he has no problem being on the road two or three months at a time — “though my Mom doesn’t like me being away so much” — but he said he is not doing it for adventure.

“I think for me it is kind of a feeling that, well, a man is not the man he could be unless he tries to make the world a better place,” the Pennsylvania native said during an interview in early December. “I feel like I am doing something that has lasting value, something that brings satisfaction to other people rather than just to myself.”

December can be a storm-less part of the calendar year. Wilkowicz was in Florida when contacted, Agoglia in Washington, D.C., visiting a Red Cross office. Such distance between team members is unusual, but contingency plans are in place for swiftly uniting them with the equipment should disaster occur.

For most of the year, team members live together in firehouses or motels. They either are working in a devastated area or preparing to drive to the next one.

“How I get there so quickly is that I work with the best meteorologists all over the country, such as the folks from The Weather Channel. When they report there are circular motions in clouds over Kansas and Missouri, for example, we get to the region and pre-position the fleet in harm’s way in order to be within a five- or-10- hour response time,” Agoglia explained.

Were he operating as a for-profit company, his team’s anxious waiting for imminent disaster would be decried as unconscionable, but to Agoglia, “Life is precious and must be saved and time is of the essence. Most people die under rubble within 24 hours and its our job to get to the scene quickly to aid the emergency workers. We remove the obstacles and do the heavy lifting so they can do their job and save lives.”

Looking to the Future

Agoglia’s team responds nationwide — to wildfires in California or hurricanes in North Carolina or any severe storm in between. His main equipment depot is in Knoxville, Tenn., but he hopes within five years to have two other teams in place on both the east and west coasts.

Agoglia also is hoping to add a fire truck to his stable of equipment. At least once a year he shows up in a community where a fire station has been destroyed along with its equipment, which he said leaves the firefighters feeling helpless.

“They are the real heroes in these situations,” Agoglia said. “I want to have a fire truck available so that when the town is without its own equipment, we have something to offer.”

The team is prepared to respond in just about any other way. It has a hovercraft for transportation in flood situations. GPS equipment helps local first responders communicate and bring order to situations and helps victims communicate with distant family members. Off-road motorbikes are standard equipment to help find victims isolated by storms, as are more typical rescue equipment such as the biggest plasma cutter on the market, concrete saws, welders and cameras and sensors to search rubble.

“Let’s be realistic, it costs a lot of money to do this,” Agoglia acknowledged. “I am almost out of my personal reserves and the companies that have responded have really set the bar high. I was moved by their generosity. We need more help from other good people who are doing it for the right reason. I believe there are a lot of good people out there. I believe it is going to work.”

Greg Arscott, general manager of The Pete Store in Knoxville, said his office decided to assist Agoglia simply because they could.

“We have trucks, we can help,” he said, failing to mention that the company also donated use of a building for the First Response Team’s offices and an acre-and-a-half lot to park the equipment. “There’s always a cause out there, but you can’t always see the impact of your help. With the First Response Team, the next relief effort could be in our own backyard.”

Arscott believes that other manufacturers and industry leaders will see that Agoglia’s efforts are “legitimate” and “as the economy improves, many of them will come out of the woodwork to support his efforts. I think it’s a tribute to Tad that, in one of the worst economic climates in 70 years, he has gotten the support he has.”

One of the donated Peterbilt trucks got baptized in November during the team’s response to flooding in Virginia. Agoglia drove it through five feet of saltwater to rescue a woman. He reported the immersion to Arscott.

“I said I think we’ll have to change all the fluids in the truck,” he recalled. “You know they might have said, ’How dare you!’ Instead, they said, ’Well, so be it. We’ll change all the fluids.’ This is the kind of response that keeps the team going.”

Both Agoglia and his backers in the equipment industry are confident that the business model of altruism that Agoglia has conceived can be sustained and expanded. It will require financial donations via the team’s Web site at, plenty of interagency networking and periodic equipment support, but Agoglia’s two-and-a-half years of experience have proven the project’s viability. In fact, Cat has made an offer to match some of the cash donations that Agoglia’s team can raise in 2010.

Certainly the 33-year-old Agoglia is a believer in the effort.

“I’m still young enough to think everything is possible.”

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