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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 is an international writer and consultant on aid
Top | Contact
Us | Credits | Previous
issue | Webmaster
| © 2004| Copyright