It was a Tuesday afternoon on January 12, 2010, and while most of the school kids in the U.S. were getting ready to end their day, students in Haiti were in the middle of their school session. In just a few seconds, an already impoverished nation would suffer the calamities of a catastrophic...
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How do you prepare for events of this magnitude?
As first responders and fire rescue professionals, we train and prepare for many scenarios. Sometimes we think we have seen it all. Then there comes a time in our careers that we ask ourselves if we are prepared mentally and physically to begin this mission, this task, or this assignment. Most of us agree that training is absolutely necessary, but so is mentoring and coaching. Throughout our mission there were senior, experienced team members talking and listening to the younger members of the team. There were numerous conversations about hydration, sleep deprivation, tactics, strategies, and even age-old combat conversations on how to best take care of your feet when you are wearing your boots for 20 hours a day.
Urban search and rescue training incorporates many disciplines. However, the standardization of tools, equipment, storage boxes, and medical components for each task force is done deliberately to allow for cross-utilization and familiarization. This example allowed us on the first day to function with Los Angeles County's tools when ours still had not yet arrived in-country. In addition, position descriptions and functions are similar. Personnel are also cross-utilized when needed and can provide like skill sets to other task forces when needed.
A mobile team like the task force needs to have a continuous, common methodology for transport. "The ability to have your heavy tools and equipment with you on the same air asset proved to be a valuable lesson," said Task Force co-leader Chief Dave Downey. "The ability to use light tools helped, but, boy, did I lose a lot of sleep until our tools arrived in-country." Like any heavy rescue squad the need to have all of your equipment with you, or to at least have a support vehicle with you, greatly enhances the team's ability to function at maximum capacity. Although the heavy breaching and breaking tools are definitely needed, more importantly personnel need to have the utmost ease of use with the smaller hand tools, according to Chief Downey.
Back home when we have responses to working fires or extrications, they are often finite operations. We basically get in, get the job done, do the report and get back in-service. In a foreign or even a domestic deployment, firefighters conducting urban search and rescue operations can work up to 14 days before the assignment has ended. In those instances, rehab and recovery must be in the forefront of not only the assigned safety officers, but of everyone on-site. We found that there must be:
- A hot meal as often as possible (once a day)
- A way to communicate with family (once a week or so being the norm)
- A way to isolate oneself for rest from the daily activities of a base camp (ear plugs or eye shades)
- A way to control the spread of contaminants typical in these types of environments (showering, hand washing, and deconning of personal clothing)
The National Urban Search and Rescue Response System was established almost 20 years ago to provide trained emergency responders to help local assets mitigate primarily structural collapses in urban environments. The response system is made up of personnel who specialize in various disciplines including search, rescue, medical, technical, hazmat, planning and canine. These men and women are predominately first responders in many of our local communities. The system is currently made up of 28 teams nationwide under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency (DHS/FEMA). Each participating agency commits to providing a centralized training and deployment center point for their respective task forces. For international deployments, the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID), under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, becomes the coordinator for U.S. aid for both rescue and recovery assistance and utilizes two primary urban search and rescue task forces as its first-in response teams. MDFR has played a significant role assisting both domestic and international response systems dating as far back as 1985.