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October 9, 09

NEWS / Urban Search and Rescue Techniques Cut Time, Save Lives

By Phillip Kurata
Staff Writer

Washington — When a 1985 earthquake leveled much of Mexico City, 130 enthusiastic but unskilled rescue workers died trying to save people buried in rubble. Ten years later, at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, one rescue worker died in the rescue effort.

Why the disparity? The answer lies in modern urban search and rescue techniques. It is noteworthy that the one rescue worker who did die in Oklahoma City did not have modern training. Before the development of modern techniques, rescue work consisted largely of improvised firefighting techniques, according to Harold Schapelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park, California, Fire Protection District.

“What was immediately evident as a result of the Mexico City earthquake was that disaster response plans were badly outdated,” he said. “No training was being done, and emergency equipment either did not exist or was terribly outdated. We realized the same thing that happened in Mexico City could happen to us, and out of that grew the new and emerging arena of urban search and rescue.”

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency established the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System in 1989 as a framework for structuring local emergency-services personnel into integrated disaster response task forces. Today, 28 teams are on call nationwide to respond within hours to natural and man-made disasters in urban areas. The units are attached to fire departments, but as Bob Zoldos of the Fairfax County, Virginia, Fire and Rescue Department explains, search and rescue operations are different from firefighting.

“When we’re talking urban search and rescue, we’re really talking about different uniforms and different gear from the get-go [beginning],” Zoldos said. “Urban search and rescue is a whole different ball game.”

Urban search and rescue is a “multihazard” discipline, applied to a variety of emergencies or disasters, including earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, storms and tornadoes, floods, dam failures, technological accidents, terrorist activities, and hazardous materials releases. The teams are made up of firefighters, engineers, medical professionals, search dogs and dog handlers, and emergency managers with special training in urban search and rescue environments.

An urban search and rescue task force works in four areas of specialization: 1) search, to find victims trapped after a disaster; 2) rescue, which includes safely digging victims out of tons of collapsed concrete and metal; 3) technical assistance, which is done by structural specialists who make rescues safe for the rescuers; and 4) medical assistance, which consists of giving care to victims during and after a rescue.

Many such specialists are professional firefighters, but others come from different lines of work; they may be doctors, structural engineers, heavy-machinery operators or dog handlers. Some have completely unrelated careers but volunteer for training in search and rescue techniques in their spare time. The dog handler for the Fairfax search and rescue team, Jennifer Massey, is an information-technology specialist at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington.

“These are incredibly committed and courageous people who often spend their own vacations training. … Some have been reprimanded by their employers for leaving their normal jobs to go on search and rescue missions,” Schapelhouman said.

The Fairfax team is one of two in the United States that has been designated for international disaster-relief work. The other is in Los Angeles County, in California. Inside a warehouse outside Washington, the Fairfax team has readied a 27,000-kilogram cache of equipment for deployment within hours. A partial list of the items includes concrete and steel cutting tools, breaking devices, portable generators, air compressors, power saws, drills, air bags, flood lights, ropes, medical supplies, victim-location devices, search cameras and portable computers.

Zoldos, who has been on about 10 urban search and rescue missions, including helping after the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan, said the most challenging part “is getting there in a timely fashion and then getting my rescuers to the site as efficiently as possible.” He said lives are lost as minutes tick by.

Zoldos and Schapelhouman said the key to success is training. “Otherwise, it is just a stash of equipment and material in the hands of clumsy people,” Schapelhouman said.

“The training that we do … keeps the rescuers right on the cutting edge where they need to be as effective rescuers and to keep themselves safe,” Zoldos said. “If we injure a rescuer, it can really hurt the team because we have to divert our attention to that rescuer.”

Rex Strickland, a Fairfax search and rescue team member, has helped train teams in South Africa, Iceland, Jordan, Britain and other places. He recently met with representatives from the United Arab Emirates, which is looking to develop a specialized search and rescue capability.

“Right now, all their search and rescue is done by volunteers, people coming in off the street,” he said. The training Strickland does around the world “saves time and saves lives,” he said. He knows that those he trains will find the same satisfaction that he has found. “For me, there is no greater joy than making a live rescue.”




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