Urban Search and Rescue Teams

This is Faith Lapidus. And this is Richard Rael with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today we tell about American rescue and recovery teams. They assist after explosions, earthquakes, storms and other natural disasters in many parts of the world.

It is August seventeenth, nineteen-ninety-nine, in Izmit, Turkey. An earthquake measuring seven-point-four on the Richter Scale has killed at least seventeen-thousand people. Dogs are running through the remains of fallen buildings. The animals are seeking the smell of human beings trapped in the wreckage. At this time, however, it does not seem that any more people will be found alive.

But then, German workers signal about a possible survivor. Experts from the United States also discover a twenty-seven-year-old woman alive in the ruins of a building. These workers are from the Fire and Rescue Department of Fairfax County, Virginia. They spend many hours moving wreckage out of the way. They reach the woman and five other people, still alive. Then they hear of a six-year-old boy who is still trapped under a fallen building. They hurry to help organize yet another rescue.

Such intense and dangerous work is not unusual for the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force from Fairfax County, Virginia. Its members have saved people from fallen buildings in many places. The team has worked in Armenia, the Philippines, Mexico, Taiwan and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in addition to its home area near Washington, D.C.

The Fairfax force is one of two groups that the United States government sends to help in disasters in other countries. It is also one of twenty-eight organizations deployed in disasters across the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

For example, Fairfax team members served on September eleventh, two-thousand-one, after terrorists attacked the United States. Hijacked airplanes struck the World Trade Center in New York City and the Department of Defense near Washington, D-C. Another airplane crashed in Pennsylvania.More than three-thousand people were killed, including more than one-hundred-eighty people at the Pentagon. Many others were injured.

The Fairfax County team was among the first groups to arrive at the Pentagon after the attack. So was the task force from nearby Montgomery County, Maryland. They arrived to find a huge fire, the remains of the airplane and people trapped in the building.

The dangerous duties of the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force always begin with bad news. Such news came from Africa on August seventh, nineteen-ninety-eight. Terrorists had bombed the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The explosions took place within minutes of each other.

In Nairobi, the embassy building and many others in the area were severely damaged. Two-hundred-forty-seven people were later confirmed dead. Thousands more were hurt. Several workers were missing.

Rescue Specialist Rex Strickland of the Fairfax task force was among Americans sent to Nairobi to help. Mr. Strickland recorded the events.

First, two United States government agencies organized deployment of the Fairfax force. They were the United States Agency for International Development and the Office of Foreign Disaster Aid. They acted after the American Ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell, asked for help. At the time, the Fairfax task force had one-hundred-thirty members. Sixty-three of them were on a plane for Kenya the day after the attack. Another plane loaded with most of their equipment followed.

The Fairfax search and rescue workers set up an operations center on embassy property. United States Marines guarded the area as the team members searched for survivors. During the first search, they found no survivors. But it took another day and a half to confirm that there was no one left alive in the wrecked embassy.

The Fairfax team members worked day and night for eight days. They divided into two groups – one for day and one for night. Six experts worked on the wreckage at a time. They worked with one-hundred-seventy members of the Israeli Army Search and Rescue Team to recover bodies. They searched the embassy grounds and the area nearby. A French team of ten people also helped.

Trained dogs and a camera called the SearchCam assisted the team members. The camera permitted them to see into spaces they could not enter. Experts removed the broken stone of the remains of the building with machines called Stanley breakers. At the same time, the Israelis used heavy equipment to remove wreckage.

Local Kenyan citizens also offered to clear wreckage. Mr. Strickland praised their help. He said they permitted the search and rescue workers to move on to other areas to look for victims.

On August twelfth, five days after the bombing, the Israelis ended their work. The Americans stayed until August sixteenth. Then they left the country. An operations director said the work in Kenya was very difficult because they could not save anyone.

Fairfax County, Virginia and the Metro-Dade County Fire Department in Miami, Florida first formed urban search and rescue forces in the nineteen-eighties. These teams were trained especially for rescue work in fallen buildings.

Today, the Federal Emergency Management Administration deploys twenty-eight such organizations. FEMA says the value of increasing America's search and rescue abilities has been proven over time. It points to lives saved after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in nineteen-ninety-five. Another successful rescue effort was at the Northridge, California earthquake in nineteen-ninety-four.

FEMA deploys search and rescue forces that have two teams. Each team requires thirty-one people, special equipment and dogs. Commanders plan the operations. Technical and structural experts work to make rescue attempts safe for the rescuers. Searchers look for victims, alive or dead. Rescuers try to pull the victims from the wreckage. Medical workers treat the injured.

Dogs do an important part of the work of urban search and rescue teams. Dogs can move into areas that are too small or too dangerous for humans. Their sharp sense of smell finds victims. Then they signal their success to their handlers. Some dogs are taught to bark when they make a discovery. Others lie down.

Dogs belonging to FEMA's search and rescue teams are trained to meet national requirements. The dogs and their handlers must pass difficult examinations. If they succeed, they serve as Advanced Canine Teams.

Advanced Canine Teams helped rescue efforts after the terrorist attack in New York City two years ago. On that deadly September eleventh, people and dogs worked together in the World Trade Center wreckage, and for days afterward.

First, structural engineers examined the area. They decided where to explore first. Some structures were in danger of falling on victims or trapping rescuers. Next, experts in dangerous materials looked for airplane fuels and other dangerous fluids. Then their handlers commanded the dogs to search for trapped people or bodies.

Three golden retrievers and a black Labrador retriever were among the dogs working through the wreckage. They belonged to Urban Search and Rescue Task Force Seven of Sacramento, California. The fifty-nine men and three women of the team had had only six hours to prepare for the dangerous work ahead.

Once in New York, they started twenty-four-hour operations at the Tishman Center. This building had forty-seven levels. It fell soon after the two Trade Center towers. The Sacramento force supported New York City fire fighters and police.

The Sacramento teams worked twenty-four-hours a day for ten days. They found no survivors. Still, they performed an important service. The rescue workers made sure that no one lay unaided and forgotten in the ruins.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Mario Ritter. This is Faith Lapidus. And this is Richard Rael. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program in Special English on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English

Source: EXPLORATIONS – September 24, 2003: Urban Search and Rescue Teams
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