Article by Kotie Geldenhuys
Photos provided by Rescue SA
On 11 March 2011 at 14:46, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, so powerful that it shifted the earth on its axis by 10 cm, struck Japan. Less than an hour later, the first of many tsunami waves hit Japan's coastline. These waves reached run-up heights (the distance that the wave surges inland above sea level) of up to 39 m at Miyako city and travelled inland as far as 10 km in Sendai. The tsunami flooded an estimated area of approximately 561 km2 in Japan. The electrical power and backup generators at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were overwhelmed by the tsunami and the plant lost its cooling capabilities. This resulted in a level-7 nuclear meltdown and the release of radioactive materials into the Pacific Ocean (www.livescience.com/39110-japan-2011-earthquake-tsunami-facts.html). In 2017, six years after the earthquake and tsunami, the final death toll stood at 15 893, with 2553 people unaccounted for (www.asahi.com/ ajw/articles/AJ201703110042.html).
When natural disasters or man-made catastrophes topple buildings, search and rescue teams immediately set out to find victims trapped beneath the wreckage. During these missions, time is critical and the ability to quickly detect living victims greatly increases the chances of rescue and survival. In such a situation, the first thing to do is to activate search and rescue teams, which consist of highly trained volunteers. In South Africa there are a number of NGOs, such as the Red Cross and Gift of the Givers, which respond to disaster areas and do excellent work by helping the victims. Servamus spoke to Mr Ian Scher, CEO of Rescue South Africa, one of the NGOs that respond to disasters, to learn more about the work they do. Rescue South Africa sent a rescue team of 50 members on 15 March 2011 to assist in the response to the 2011 Japan earthquake, which was followed by a tsunami.
Mr Scher told us that after a group of volunteers went to India and Turkey to assist with search and rescue operations following earthquakes, the concept of Rescue South Africa was born. In 2001, an NGO was registered and the big build-up started. The team needed to get specialised rescue equipment and other necessities such as mobile/veld kitchens and toilets together to make responding to disaster areas possible.
Rescue South Africa approached USAID to request funding for training. The funding was provided and two teams from OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance) were sent to South Africa to train a selected group of professional firefighters. This was a part of their mission to assist vulnerable populations in training resources to build resilience and strengthen their own ability to respond to emergencies. Rescue South Africa strategically selected the delegates to ensure maximum impact of this training opportunity. A total of 26 firefighters, who were also involved in training in their daily jobs, were selected and trained. This group of 26 went on to train thousands of South Africans to the level of Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) technicians.
Rescue South Africa's instructors and training material have been accredited by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to ensure a tertiary institution benchmark. This benchmark not only ensures the international standard of Rescue South Africa's training solution - it also entrenches the standardisation of training required to ensure uniformity and team cohesion in the future. Career firefighters are accredited by UJ to do practical training with delegates. These instructors are also qualified safety officers.
The 15-week training course consists of theory and practical work and covers various rescue topics such as high angles, confined spaces, swift water, hazardous chemicals, industrial and agricultural rescue, trenches, structural collapse rescue, fire search and rescue and training the trainer. Students write a theoretical exam and also do a practical examination during which they are evaluated on their knowledge of using the equipment properly. As search and rescue is all about teamwork, they also do group tasks during which they have to build specific wooden structures (shoring), which are typical of those built when a rescue team deals with unsafe structures after a disaster, to ensure their safety.