Research and Rescue

firefighter-training.jpgBy Nick Diamantides
Staff Writer

If you were trapped under a hundred tons of rubble, could search and rescue teams find you before you died? About 100 firefighters from as far away as Marin County converged on an 8-acre site in Long Beach last Wednesday and Thursday to answer that question.
“We’re training now so that when the big earthquake comes to California—and it will come—we will have everything in line and ready to go,” said Mark Valentine, fire captain for the City of Montebello.
The two-day exercise involved high-tech devices and the use of search dogs. It took place on a parcel owned but no longer used by Amerigas Corporation. The site contains huge piles of concrete rubble, large mounds of dirt and abandoned gas compressing equipment, which will one day be removed to make way for the Long Beach Sports Park.
“This site is perfect for training personnel in search and rescue operations,” said Mark German, a battalion chief for the Long Beach Fire Department. “We like it because it looks just like a disaster area.”
The exercise (close to the southwest corner of Spring Street and Orange Avenue) was hosted by LBFD and overseen by German.
“Urban search and rescue has two components: locating the victims and getting them to safety,” German explained. “During these two days, we focused entirely on the techniques we use to find people who are missing after a disaster strikes.”
The battalion chief noted that the exercise had three subcomponents. “We exercised the organizational structure, the canine units and the detection equipment,” he said.
According to German, emergency response agencies all over the United States are practicing and refining the federally mandated Incident Command System (ICS) that was practiced during the exercise. The system was originally developed in Southern California to coordinate the efforts of the multiple agencies dealing with wildland fires.
“Communications are always difficult when you have several agencies working together,” German explained. “ICS establishes a chain of command; it establishes an incident commander and delegates authority down from that person to the leaders of the various teams responding to a disaster.”
He noted that the goal of ICS is to make sure every emergency responder knows whose orders to obey and to make sure the efforts of the various agencies are coordinated to maximize efficiency. “That process got a little smoother with each session,” German said.
Valentine explained what the dogs did, noting that they have an amazing sense of smell. “They can pick up the scent of a live person buried under 30 feet of rubble,” he said. “These dogs are trained to run back and forth over the rubble until they find the place where the scent is the strongest, and at that point they start barking.”
Once that location is determined, search team members will try to locate the person by sight or by calling out to them. If that doesn’t work, searchers use high-tech detection equipment.
About 20 volunteers participated in the exercise by crawling into crevices in the rubble that were then covered by plywood and other debris. The idea was to simulate situations where victims could not be seen or heard by search teams.
“We had guys using the Delsar, which is a listening device that can pick up the faintest of sounds below rubble,” Valentine said. “It can hear someone tapping and that helps us locate them.”
The search teams also used miniature cameras lowered on cables or mounted on telescopic poles to transmit images on video screens. “That way we could see if one or more people are trapped beneath the rubble and we can get an idea of what else is down there,” Valentine noted. “Using the dogs and the detection equipment gives us a better idea of where and how to start removing the rubble so we can get to the victims.”
A total of 16 different fire departments participated in the exercise, which was funded by a grant from the federal Urban Area Security Initiative. “We won’t know how much the entire exercise cost until all the departments submit their paperwork,” German said.
He added that the exercise went well. “The more we do this, the better we get at coordinating our efforts and quickly locating the victims,” he said. “That’s the purpose—to make sure we are ready to go when the next disaster strikes.”

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