A multinational exercise gives search-and-rescue teams a chance to practice complex technical operations while building relationships and finding confidence.
Imagine the scene: You have just arrived at a large-scale disaster — smoke is billowing from collapsed buildings, the noise level is cacophonous, and a multitude of walking wounded are wandering about in varying degrees of medical distress. Your orders are to attach your team to one that already has responded and is tunneling through debris. Its task is to shore up a structure so that it can search for victims — whom you can hear screaming. It is dark and cold, and the air is filled with the breath from the exhausted team. The immediate challenge facing you is that none of the members of this team speak English. What do you do?
This is exactly the challenge that responders faced when they participated in the 2011 Multinational Urban Search & Rescue exercise conducted in October by the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX). The event was held at the world-renowned Disaster City in College Station, Texas, and brought together US&R teams from Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. More than 100 emergency search-and-rescue team members deployed to a mock earthquake event with the goal of honing their individual and team-building skills. The training simulation was a rich educational experience that provided valuable insight for tackling problems, both new and old.
More Than Co-Existing
Fire departments around the world are experienced in responding to major disasters, which all have one thing in common, regardless of whether they are natural or manmade: Emergency responders are required to rescue victims and save lives, regardless of the circumstances. But rarely do departments get an opportunity to practice with other departments and coordinate their unique skills, especially on a global level.
TEEX developed its training exercise to prove that professional firefighters and US&R operatives from around the world can work together in a disaster situation, regardless of language barriers and differences in operational expertise. The exercise was designed to give international and national teams a chance to practice complex technical operations while also developing all of the intangibles that are critical to their success when they deploy to actual disasters. The non-emergency environment allowed teams to build rapport, relationships, and confidence in each other and themselves that will be crucial in a real emergency.
The diversity of the participating organizations coupled with the difficulty level of the exercise ensured that teams would not be able to simply coexist; rather, they would have to fully integrate and work together. During the five-day exercise participants practiced logistics; technical searches; canine searches; shoring; breaching; lifting and moving; and command-and-control skills. The advanced structures and props in Disaster City, as well as its state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Training Center, provided an abundance of both simple and complex scenarios.
The objectives of the exercise were to:
- Conduct search-and-rescue operations in a realistic disaster environment.
- Conduct search-and-rescue operations as part of a joint international disaster scenario.
- Conduct shift change and hand-over during ongoing rescue operations.
- Participate in logistical operations during the exercise.
Every effort was made to make the exercise as realistic as possible, based on an understanding that no textbook or manual is going to be able to train or prepare anyone sufficiently for a real disaster. Training people to use their own minds — to have a flexible approach to any given situation — is something that can be accomplished only by putting emergency responders into real-life scenarios.
When Disaster Strikes
After an initial introduction from each team and the necessary safety briefing, the exercise began. It simulated a 7.3-magnitude earthquake that occurred along the New Madrid fault line and which affected Disaster City, Texas (population: 950). Due to the large scope of damage that the earthquake caused throughout the Ohio Valley and along the Mississippi Basin, USAID-OFDA and requested that the U.N. be notified of the need for INSARAG (International Search and Rescue Advisory Group) teams.was overwhelmed by requests for US&R teams. Consequently, the agency contacted
A base camp where teams were housed and provided with basic but adequate hygiene facilities had been erected close to the Emergency Operations Training Center, which was located midway between the fire field and Disaster City. A command center was set up and teams were put to work immediately.
Participants surveyed and mapped all areas, performed initial rescues for the walking wounded, and began the process of shoring-up unsafe structures in preparation for removing any casualties trapped within or underground. The styles and techniques from attending countries were different, as one might imagine, and it was evident from the outset that some teams had benefited from more intense training than others had received. However, it also was immediately evident that showmanship was non-existent. Each team took it upon itself to assist and, more importantly, learn from the other responding entities.
Start and finish times, as well as the exercise itself, were varied to give everyone working shifts that ranged from early morning to late night. The earliest start was at 4:30 a.m., with 1 a.m. the latest finish.
Disaster-related noise continuously was broadcast through a speaker system and cosmetic smoke interrupted the daily routine. Makeup artists were employed so that volunteer victims exhibited a plethora of injuries, including broken and protruding bones, severe burns and missing limbs. In addition, countless mannequins were placed under debris that ranged from heavy concrete to train cars. All victims, whether dummy or otherwise, received the same humanitarian and medical care that the responders typically provide on a daily basis during real emergencies.
We were blessed to experience the adverse weather conditions of Texas, and each day was different: hot and dry at one moment, cold and wet at another. All of these conditions contributed to the extreme working conditions we placed the teams under during their shifts. When their shifts were over, responders slept under canvas tents and ate MREs (meals ready to eat), which was a new experience for some of them.
Daily updates were provided, as they would in any real situation, to maintain the fluidity of the exercise. None of the participants knew in advance at what point the day would end, and myriad challenges were built into the exercise, such as equipment shortages, which forced each participant to quickly adapt.
A team of subject-matter experts was assembled, all very experienced in not only response but also training, to oversee the exercises and the problems that teams encountered. These experts were hand-picked from entities in the U.K., Canada, Belgium, and Sweden, as well as the U.S., including Texas Task Force 1. A team of INSARAG-qualified assessors from the U.K. and Belgium also was assembled, which assisted with not only with the exercises themselves, but also with the after-action review.
Many lessons can be learned from an event such this. One of the bigger challenges facing the multinational participants was the lack of standardized command-and-control and marking systems that can be used by all wherever the disaster happens to occur. Logistics also received much discussion, as tactics employed in the U.S. seemed somewhat alien to several teams from Europe that attended the exercise.
In addition, it became apparent over the course of the week that many similarities exist between multinational and multijurisdictional challenges. Watching teams from different countries negotiate differences in language and operational shorthand looked a lot like watching teams from different local jurisdictions interact. The exercise reminded that there are many boundaries that the fire service needs to push beyond, whether they exist between countries or between jurisdictions.
Finally, collaborative training exercises such as the one conducted by TEEX not only push participants to new levels in both confidence and knowledge, they improve the integration of response efforts during major emergencies and disasters, which helps to ensure the collective safety of responders and victims alike.
More than 100 rescuers from five countries participated in the mock earthquake response.
Belgium: B-FAST was formed in 2003 by the Federal Council of Ministers to create a rapid response structure for the purpose of sending emergency aid teams to a country or countries affected by a man-made or natural disaster.
Canada: Red Deer Search and Rescue is a non-profit organization founded in 1996 by a group of outdoor enthusiasts who had a desire to contribute their skills for the benefit of those who have become lost or missing. It works in partnership with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other volunteer search and rescue organizations in the province of Alberta.
Germany: The structure of Technisches Hilfswerk (THW) is unique. It is a federal agency, yet only 1% of the staff works full-time for the authority; the remainder works on a voluntary basis. Nationwide, more than 80,000 volunteers provide professional help to people in distress.
London Fire Brigade: The London Fire Brigade was founded in 1865 and is the largest dedicated fire service in the world. It is also the fourth-largest (after the Tokyo Fire Department, New York City Fire Department, and Paris Fire Brigade) when taking into account EMS, with nearly 7,000 staff members, including nearly 6,000 operational firefighters based in 112 fire stations.
Merseyside (U.K.) Fire & Rescue Service: Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service was created in 1974 when the county of Merseyside was established. It covers an area of 653 square kilometers (252 square miles) and a population of about 1.5 million. Approximately 1,200 employees work for the service.
Lincolnshire (U.K.) Fire & Rescue: The Lincolnshire Fire & Rescue Service employs approximately 900 people, including about 200 full-time firefighters. The county’s 38 fire stations are allocated to one of three divisions (East, West and South). The majority of Lincolnshire is covered by part-time staffers who attend on a call-out basis due to the comparatively large distances between main towns and the county’s Spartan road network.
West Midlands (U.K) Fire & Rescue: The West Midlands Fire & Rescue Service was created in 1974 when West Midlands County was created. Prior to its creation, each of the county boroughs in the West Midlands area had its own fire brigade. The largest of these brigades was the Birmingham Fire Brigade. The WMFS was created by a merger of these brigades and is now the second-largest fire-and-rescue agency in the U.K.
Greater Manchester (U.K.) Fire & Rescue Service: The Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service covers an area of approximately 1,280 square kilometers (496 square miles) and has 41 fire stations. The service employs 2,641 personnel, of which 2,174 are uniformed operational personnel, in addition to 64 control room staff, and 403 non-uniformed support staff.
Wales Mines Rescue Service: For more than 100 years, Wales Mines Rescue Service has worked to rescue mineworkers who are trapped underground. This service is available to all fire brigades as necessary for all underground emergency responses.
United States: In addition, response teams from Wisconsin, Iowa and the Texas cities of Austin, College Station, Levelland and Fort Worth, as well as Texas Task Force 1, participated in the exercise.
Brian Freeman is the training director for TEEX, where he oversees all urban search-and-rescue scenarios. He retired from the London Fire Brigade after 30 years of service.