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Digging out

by Nick Cater

Rubble and aftershocks, water and waste from broken pipes, homeless survivors digging to find relatives or huddled around fires — it's the typical scene of earthquake devastation that inspires many to rush in with search-and-rescue operations from sometimes thousands of miles away.

Local SAR teams dig through the rubble following the massive earthquake in Algeria in 2003.
©Christopher Black / International Federation

Developments in technology, construction and communications are focusing more attention on the life-saving potential of search-and-rescue (SAR) teams from National Societies and international groups following earthquakes and other disasters, from mudslides to terrorist bombs.

But SAR teams also face scrutiny about their speed, effectiveness and costs, with calls for far greater priority to be given to disaster preparedness, such as training and resources for national emergency networks and local volunteers to save more lives in seismically-active countries.

SAR skills have evolved from several sources, including domestic emergency services engaged in fire fighting, and the teams tasked to find and recover those lost in remote areas, often with the use of "sniffer" dogs for tracking and locating individuals.

Today's canine capacities in SAR teams are often enhanced with sophisticated equipment, such as heat and sonic sensors to spot the warmth of a body or pick up sounds as quiet as the beating of a human heart, as well as skills as diverse as first aid and construction techniques.

Evolving communications have had a significant impact on SAR, with details of disasters and needs flashed worldwide in minutes through networks like the International Federation's web-based Disaster Management Information System, while mobile phones allow calls from inside damaged buildings.

A big factor encouraging the growth of urban SAR teams has been changing construction methods, such as the use of concrete slabs that — unlike timber, mud or bricks — create spaces or "voids" as homes and offices collapse in which those not crushed by falling masonry or cut by broken glass may survive.

But survival times, especially for those injured, cold or without water, are more often minutes and hours than days. Any SAR operation is a race against time, highlighting the need for local training and teams, and putting international groups at a severe disadvantage.

Hold-ups in getting rescue staff, dogs, equipment and supplies across national borders and through customs controls are being tackled through new international agreements, including a recent United Nations resolution passed to strengthen urban SAR assistance.

That initiative had International Federation support, reflecting its far wider work through the International Disaster Response Law (IDRL) project to develop a consistent framework of national legislation and regional or global agreements to aid fast and effective emergency action worldwide.

International versus local

For domestic and sometimes international disasters, be they earthquakes, hurricanes or even terrorist bombs, many National Societies have or are developing SAR skills, from the United States and Colombia to Cuba and Italy, Turkey and Algeria to India and Viet Nam.

A good example is the expertise of the Austrian, German and Luxembourg Red Cross societies, which together have search and rescue services involving hundreds of staff and dozens of dogs available for emergencies at home and a smaller group with extra training for overseas missions.

These three National Societies have a substantial track record in major earthquakes and other disasters, from Armenia in 1985, Egypt in 1992 and 1996, and the two earthquakes in Turkey in 1999, to Algeria and Bam in Iran last year, and Morocco earlier this year.

Gert Venghaus, German Red Cross head of international disaster relief, says the SAR teams reached recent disasters in Algeria, Morocco and Iran within hours and played an important role in each one, though he adds: “The training of local people is by far more effective and useful.”

"The vast majority of 'live' rescues are done by neighbours, lay people, long before trained people even arrive at the scene of a disaster. There is a sizeable discussion under way on the use of foreign SAR teams and, given the usually limited positive results, it is doubtful whether foreign SAR teams are a realistic first response."

But he highlights how SAR teams show solidarity, prompt political interest and attract TV cameras: "One should not deny the extremely positive media effect a dispatched SAR team has and there are some direct linkages between the speedy deployment of an SAR team and the amount of donations for a specific disaster."


The training of local people is by far more effective and useful.


Joint initiatives

Cooperation between National Societies is improving SAR skills and saving lives, such as the German Red Cross training for Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS) dog-handling teams. Leading that project is Michael Kielau of the Hamburg SAR group.

Four times a year he trains handlers and their dogs in Tehran: "It is not easy, because for dogs it is a hard life in Iran. But the handlers are highly motivated and they learned very quickly." So far, 12 handlers and 20 dogs have been trained, and they were the first team working on the ground in Bam.

Dog teams are part of a far broader development of disaster preparedness and relief management in Iran, according to Mostafa Mohaghegh, former head of the IRCS's international department and now operations coordinator in the International Federation's operations support department.

"We decided to upgrade and expand our relief and rescue capacity, from staff and volunteers to equipment and supplies, and including the dog teams. In Bam, the first dog team was working within 90 minutes of the earthquake and the rest arrived within a few hours. They saved at least 157 lives, and helped in the rescue of 500 more."

He reports that international SAR teams took far longer and some had not checked about local construction techniques — mainly adobe and brick rather than the concrete that might have left voids — so they arrived after the possibility of rescuing people alive had become remote.

Through specialist centres and community programmes, the IRCS is involved in training hundreds of thousands of people in disaster-related skills, from first aid to relief management, which is vital given the country's earthquakes, floods and other natural hazards, says Mohaghegh.

With International Federation support, a regional strategic relief centre in Tehran to serve the Middle East and Central Asia is already operational, and the IRCS is now creating a relief and rescue team that can offer assistance to other countries across the region.

Lessons form Bam

The Pan American Health Organization recently highlighted that after disasters, "the myth that the affected population is too shocked and helpless to take responsibility for their own survival is simply that: a myth. Time and time again, the reality emerges that family, neighbors and local citizens are best placed to save victims' lives."

Reviewing the Bam disaster in its newsletter, PAHO noted that the earthquake "brought home, once again, the reality that most international search and rescue teams arrive too late to make a significant difference in terms of saving a number of lives following sudden-impact natural disasters".

While an estimated 1,600 relief and rescue workers from 46 countries came to Bam, "the Iranian authorities and the Red Crescent were really amazing. Within three days they had treated 30,000 people... and were well on their way to distributing 98,000 tents, 200,000 blankets, 400,000 food rations".

An Iranian Ministry of Health disaster expert told PAHO that more aid should be spent on disaster management training and capacity building, adding: "It was a pity that some experts who came to Bam following the earthquake could have contributed so much more in terms of training and organizing Iranian teams before the disaster.

"Many dead bodies were still warm when pulled from the debris, showing that if local relief and rescue teams had been better trained, or had participated in joint training exercises prior to the disaster with the very international teams who came to Bam, more lives could have been saved."


Nick Cater
Nick Cater is an international writer and consultant on aid issues.

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