Firefighters and SAR techs prove their value to DART

By Capt Mark Peebles, Air Force News, Mar. 19, 2010

When an earthquake ravaged Haiti on January 12, the idea of deploying firefighters and search and rescue (SAR) assets overseas on a humanitarian mission was still just that – an idea.

By the next day, it was a reality.

In the weeks following the earthquake, the idea proved its value to the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) thanks to the skill, professionalism and initiative of the firefighters and SAR techs who deployed.

Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Ewing, commanding officer of the DART explained that natural disasters can be broken down into three phases: rescue, recovery and reconstruction. Traditionally, the DART deployed to affected countries to assist in the second phase - recovery. But recent natural disasters, coupled with the Canadian Forces improved ability to deploy rapidly, raised the possibility of helping out earlier.

“The Chief of Defence Staff wanted us to be able to deploy earlier with more options,” he said. “He wanted to see about us participating in the rescue phase.”

LCol Ewing explained that SAR techs and firefighters bring unique skill sets and are used to dealing with intense situations. He added that they also bring medical and rescue expertise, as well as equipment, which could be brought to use in the rescue phase of an operation.

The “humanitarian operations-disaster relief” (HO-DR) concept of operations – guidance on contributing earlier in a disaster situation – was due to be completed in mid-February. A proof-of-concept exercise was scheduled for later this spring full operating capacity scheduled for the summer.

The earthquake of January 12 accelerated the process.

The reconnaissance team that left 8 Wing Trenton, Ont. for Port-au-Prince on January 13 included a more robust than usual party of medics. The first CC-177 Globemaster III that flew Port-au-Prince the following morning was loaded with firefighters, SAR techs and a CH-146 Griffon helicopter from 8 Wing. As the mission matured, more firefighting and SAR assets arrived from 19 Wing Comox, B.C., 3 Wing Bagotville, Q.C. and 5 Wing Goose Bay, N.L.

“Once they got on the ground, I sent them out with like-minded organizations who were doing rescues,” said LCol Ewing.

In addition to searching for survivors, the SAR Techs helped provide medical care in hospitals in Port-au-Prince and evacuated seriously injured Haitians from difficult to reach or remote locations to the Canadian medical facility in Léogâne and the American hospital ship USS Comfort.

It was a new experience for many of the SAR crews.

“Normally we respond to domestic emergencies, so coming to Haiti and being integrated with the DART was definitely a new experience,” said Sergeant David Payne, a SAR tech with 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron.

The firefighters, employed in an urban search and rescue role, accompanied SAR techs on searches and conducted extrications of remains in Port-au-Prince. In Jacmel, they advised the commanding officer and the city’s mayor on damaged structures, and worked with DART engineers to conduct controlled demolitions of damaged buildings. Despite the accelerated use of the HO-DR concept, LCol Ewing said the firefighters and SAR techs proved their value to the DART.

“They have been excellent. They’ve proven extremely flexible and I think that’s a factor of their initiative, professionalism and experience,” he said. “They’ve definitely had an effect at an early phase of this mission.”

LCol Ewing said the HO-DR concept will continue to evolve and will benefit from the lessons learned from this mission.

(With files from Joint Task Force-Haiti public affairs)

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