UK ISAR assist in Haiti - their story

Published:  18 February, 2010

Behind the scenes with the UK ISAR team that attended the aftermath of the Haiti devastation.

At 22:53 on January 12 an earthquake of magnitude 7.2 struck the Caribbean island of Haiti.

Twenty-five minutes later the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) had assessed the likely impact and sent red alert messages to rescue organisations and relief agencies throughout the world.

It was a relatively shallow quake at 10 km depth and was centred 16 Km south west of Carrefour, 9 Km south east of Leogane and likely to affect the capital, Port-au-Prince.

One of the rescue organisations alerted was the United Kingdom International Search and Rescue (UK ISAR) team and its co-ordinator Group Manager Pete Crook who within minutes of the call had contacted the Department for International Development (DFID), the Government department that mobilise rescue and aid on behalf of the British Government, to appraise them of the situation.

The conversation took place on route to the Major Incident Room (MIR) at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service Headquarters because one of the responsibilities of the Hampshire team was to mobilise the on-call UK ISAR teams in the event of an incident.

Within one hour of the earthquake striking Pete Crook had spoken to fellow rescuers in the United States and Iceland and ascertained that a large scale rescue operation was likely to be essential for the region. This information was passed to DFID who took the early decision to mobilise the UK team.

By this time Pete had been joined in the MIR by colleagues from the Hampshire Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team and mobilisation of UK ISAR commenced.

UK ISAR is made up of 13 Fire and Rescue Services who commit to provide a team of 6 rescuers to join with Command and Control specialists from West Midlands FRS, logistics specialists from West Sussex and Hampshire FRSs, FRS dog handlers, doctors, Operations Commanders, a hazmat/safety expert and an overall team leader to form the UK team of approximately 65 people.

Only half of the rescue teams are on call at any one time and due to the fact that Hampshire had mobilised to Indonesia in October they were off call for search and rescue but responsible for mobilising and co-ordinating the UK response.

Teams from Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Lincolnshire, Kent, South, Mid and West Wales, West Midlands and West Sussex were all contacted by e-mail and telephone with a request for details of the personnel who would make up their team. This information included date and place of birth, passport numbers, nationality, etc, all of which was required by DFID in order to arrange visas to the affected country.

Simultaneously contact was made with the doctors and the dog handlers in order to secure nominations for team members as well as the duty officer for the Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor (CFRA), the Chief Fire Officer’s Association (CFOA) leads for UK ISAR and USAR and the Fire and Rescue Service National Co-ordination Centre (FRSNCC) to inform them of the mobilisation.

UK ISAR has been assessed and qualified by the United Nations as a ‘heavy rescue team’. As such the team is capable of being self-sufficient once in country, carrying with it sufficient food, water, accommodation and supplies to cover a 7-10 day deployment. It must also be capable of carrying out rescue operations that include dog and technical search, heavy lifting, breaking and breaching through concrete, metal, stone and timber and shoring up unstable structures. These tasks all required a good deal of specialist equipment so an equipment cache weighing around 12 tonnes had to be gathered and packed prior to deployment.

This task was taken on by West Sussex, who are responsible for the operational kit, and Hampshire, who provide the accommodation and welfare aspects of the equipment. Members of Hampshire’s USAR team reported to headquarters around midnight to commence equipment loading.

Meanwhile DFID were busy identifying an available aircraft of sufficient size to transport UK ISAR with its equipment along with an assessment and support team from its own department.

On this occasion a Boeing 757 was available at Bournemouth airport with a crew on standby at Gatwick so a decision was taken to fly the plane up to the crew which made Gatwick Airport the point of departure. All teams were informed of this and advised to be at Horley Fire Station in West Sussex, for 09:00 on January 13 ready for departure at 12:00 the same day.

Less than 12 hours after the quake struck the complete UK ISAR team had assembled at Horley and individual team members were going through medical checks to ensure their fitness for mobilisation and that their inoculations, essential for world travel, were up to date.

Heavy snow delayed the team’s departure from Gatwick and they eventually left at 19:40, still well within 24 hours of the earthquake first being reported.

The MIR at Hampshire FRS was staffed 24 hours a day in order to relay back information from Port-au-Prince Airport, where the team established its Base of Operation (BoO).

Unlike some previous deployments where the mobile phone network has been reasonably reliable, in Haiti this was not the case. The team had to rely on satellite telephones in order to send back updates so it was extremely important that news coming out of Haiti was passed on to all interested parties; the home FRSs, the media, the various organisations within the Fire and Rescue community, but most importantly the families of those who had been deployed.

This was the task of the co-ordination centre and with a five hour time difference between the two countries this made round the clock coverage of the MIR very desirable.

Once the team had left the ground at Gatwick communications stopped for a while but it was still essential to track the progress of the flight and provide a single point of contact for the team which could be used to disseminate information. The flight was due to arrive in Haiti at night, but damage to the airport meant it was diverted the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

Over the next 24 hours flights between the two countries ferried parts of the team, its equipment and personnel to Haiti but as soon as sufficient resources were on the ground the task of search and rescue got underway.

West Midlands set up a command and control point at the BoO and provided updates to the MIR in Hampshire as and when information became available. Twice daily meetings were held between team leaders and the United Nations to update situation reports and to task the rescuers.

There were a number of rescue teams within the area and UK ISAR worked alongside many international colleagues during the course of the deployment.

Among the report highlights coming through to the co-ordination centre over the next couple of days was the news that the team had been involved in the rescues of a two-year-old girl, a 55-year-old male and a 40-year-old female.

Further deployments were made to the towns of Leogane and Petit Goave where the medical teams were able to assist the populations that had been cut off since the earthquake.

On many occasions search and rescue operations wind down five or six days after an earthquake as the potential for finding further survivors diminishes.

In Haiti survivors were still being pulled from the rubble well over a week later so rescue teams continued to comb the wreckage for as long as survivors continued to be found.

Ultimately the incidents of survivor rescues reduced to a point where those teams that had been in country early were beginning to tire and run low on supplies. The decision was taken by Mike Thomas, Chief Fire Officer of Lincolnshire FRS and the UK ISAR team leader in Haiti, to stand the team down and to return to the UK on January 22, a full 10 days after the earthquake hit.

Work at the co-ordination centre then started ensuring that all FRSs were aware of departure, flight and arrival times and that they were in a position to repatriate their teams on return.

Media interest throughout the deployment had been high and increased with the news that the team were returning. Both national and local news organisations were keen to talk to returning team members so a media plan was devised to ensure a smooth and organised arrival.

National media were accommodated at the airport with representatives of the team leadership being joined by CFOAs president, Hampshire’s CFO John Bonney in a press conference and photo opportunity.

Responsibility for dealing with local media interest was given to individual FRSs to control.

Now several weeks after the teams return work continues to restock supplies and equipment and make the team ready and available for any future emergencies.

The review of the Haiti deployment is ongoing to identify those processes that worked well and those that required to be changed or tweaked.

Overall the UK ISAR team working on behalf of DFID can feel justly proud of what was achieved in Haiti and the team stands ready to send help the next time GDACS send out a red alert

  • Operation Florian

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