This is Just a Drill

8 minutes read time
Members of L.A. County Fire Department practice treating an injured team member in a confined space. In this scenario, a structural specialist is treated and stabilized in the field after being impaled in the chest by a steel bar. / Emily Rasinski, USAID/
Members of L.A. County Fire Department practice treating an injured team member in a confined space. In this scenario, a structural specialist is treated and stabilized in the field after being impaled in the chest by a steel bar. (Emily Rasinski, USAID)

This is Just a Drill

It’s been mere hours since their boots hit the ground and the team started working. In front of them is an unrecognizable concrete structure. They were told it used to be a government building. Reports say people are trapped inside and a canine confirmed it.

Red Squad One, an elite international urban search and rescue team out of Fairfax County, Virginia. is on scene. Jackhammers clatter against a 6-inch thick cement wall until a small opening emerges. A medic shimmies through, feet first. The drilling continues for another hour and a half, when the first survivor is finally pulled out of the hole. It’s the team’s first rescue.

Members of Red Squad One, an urban search and rescue team out of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, rescue a “victim” trapped under a collapsed concrete building during the first night of their annual week-long exercise put on by USAID. / Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA

Members of Red Squad One, an urban search and rescue team out of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, rescue a “victim” trapped under a collapsed concrete building during the first night of their annual week-long exercise put on by USAID. (Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA)

The sweat is real, their muscles are sore, and the hours are long. But the disaster is just a drill. It is a unique opportunity for disaster experts at USAID to practice with urban search and rescue (USAR) teams from Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Because first responders have the potential to save the most lives, USAID has partnered with Fairfax and Los Angeles Counties to deploy overseas on short notice. USAID has deployed the urban search and rescue teams internationally 17 times since 1988, when the Agency incorporated USAR into its international disaster response.

Relationships between USAID and the urban search and rescue teams are key to a successful response. It is important for each group to understand the other’s role as well as their shared mission. / Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA

Relationships between USAID and the urban search and rescue teams are key to a successful response. It is important for each group to understand the other’s role as well as their shared mission. (Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA)

Why We Train

“It’s about getting experience and building muscle memory. This training allows people not only the chance to gain valuable experience, but also the opportunity to press pause and think things through. On the ground during an actual disaster, everything happens fast.”


- Greg Holyfield, Regional Advisor, USAID’s Office of U.S. Disaster Assistance

A team looks over the scene of a simulated helicopter crash.

A team looks over the scene of a simulated helicopter crash. (Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA)  

USAID Regional Advisor Greg Holyfield talks with Chris Oliver, a Safety and Security Officer.

USAID Regional Advisor Greg Holyfield talks with Chris Oliver, a Safety and Security Officer. (Emily Rasinski/USAID/OFDA)

USAID Information Officer Maureena Thompson discusses the exercise with Dan Gajewski of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. / Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA

USAID Information Officer Maureena Thompson discusses the exercise with Dan Gajewski of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. (Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA)

Lorton, Virginia might not have a lot in common with Nepal, but for one week this spring, this community located about 30 miles outside of D.C. “filled in” as a disaster-prone country in southeast Asia.

The week-long training is put on by USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, which leads and coordinates the U.S. government’s disaster response efforts around the world.

“The only way you can truly train or prepare your people to handle these high stress situations when the real emergency hits, is to get out there and do it yourself. You need to know what that feels like.”

- Anthony “Buzz” Buzzerio, Battalion Chief Los Angeles County Fire Department

Setting Up Camp

It takes approximately 30 minutes for a small team to put up each of the 1000-pound tents that serve as USAID’s operations center and sleeping quarters during a disaster. Two generators provide power for everything from the team’s computers and communications system to the coffee maker.

The USAR teams put up their own tents which include a medical facility, sleeping quarters, and their own command center. These teams are completely self-sustainable for three days and have enough food to last about 10 days without resupply.

USAID team members secure the roof on their operations center.

USAID team members secure the roof on their operations center.
 (Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA)  

Aerial view of the base of operations. Bottom left: Keeping the operations center dry becomes a challenge after days of rain.

Aerial view of the base of operations. Bottom left: Keeping the operations center dry becomes a challenge after days of rain.  (Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA) 

Keeping the operations center dry becomes a challenge after days of rain.

Keeping the operations center dry becomes a challenge after days of rain.
(Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA)

Breaking and Breaching

“Every site, every building, every pile of rubble is a different scenario. Each one is based on a situation we actually faced overseas.”

- Melissa Serich, Training Coordinator, Virginia Task Force 1, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department

During this exercise, the USAR teams faced approximately 50 scenarios simulating different structural collapses, including a school, health facility, parking garage, and a building containing hazardous materials. They have to master several harrowing tasks, including rescuing people in confined space rescues, “amputating” a victim’s leg, and treating injured team members, including their dogs, in the field.

During rescues, time is a critical factor and can mean the difference between life and death. That’s why urban search and rescue teams work around the clock in rotating shifts. Here, a member of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue is suspended by ropes as he drills through concrete.

During rescues, time is a critical factor and can mean the difference between life and death. That’s why urban search and rescue teams work around the clock in rotating shifts. A member of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue is suspended by ropes as he drills through concrete.(Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA)  

Members of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue practices a high angle rescue. / Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA

Members of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue practices a high angle rescue.
(Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA)

The Dogs

Eight search and rescue canines from Fairfax County participated in the exercise including a Border Collie (Loki), three Belgian Malinois (Ivan, Etta and Xandr), and four Labrador Retrievers (Peter Pan, Pryse, Pistol and Angus).

The dogs work in teams. After one dog identifies a live person trapped in the rubble, a second dog is sent in. Once this second dog confirms the location, the search and rescue teams can move in make the rescue.

“Not only are these dogs extremely hard working, they are also really smart. As young dogs, they learn the basics and as they get older we challenge them mentally to make sure they’re prepared for any situation they might face in a disaster. Scientists have tried to replicate what these dogs can do, but a dog’s nose cannot be replaced!”

- Kristi Bartlett, Canine Search Specialist, Virginia Task Force 1, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department

While advances in technology have helped USAR teams better see and hear people that may be trapped, the dogs themselves are equipped with the most finely calibrated tools to find survivors. They use their unique keen sense of smell to locate people trapped beneath layers of concrete, bricks, wood or other dense structural material. Their sensitive noses can detect the scent of human breath and skin cells, while their nimble size also allows them to navigate though tight spaces that could not be reached by humans.

Although these dogs get a lot of attention for their four-legged cuteness, when they deploy, they’re all business, working long hours alongside their handlers.

“These dogs are always ready to deploy. Each dog lives and works with its handler and you get certified as a team. You know your dog so well that you can read each other’s body language.”

- Kristi Bartlett, Canine Search Specialist, Virginia Task Force 1, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department

Loki, a Border Colli, finds a survivor stuck in a concrete pipe. Right: Ivan, a Belgian Malinois searches the top of a rubble pile for survivors. Photo credit: Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA

USAR dogs play a vital role in the search process. Ivan, a Belgian Malinois searches the top of a rubble pile for survivors. (Emily Rasinski/USAID/OFDA)

 

The Team

Nearly 200 firefighters from Fairfax County Fire and Fire and Rescue Department and Los Angeles County Fire Department took part in the exercise, working with USAID’s 15-person Disaster Assistance Response Team.

“With the extra training and certifications, these two fire departments are the best of the best. These are the same people that service your communities every day. If I were ever in an emergency and needed to call someone, I would hope these would be the teams responding.”

- Melissa Serich, Training Coordinator, Virginia Task Force 1, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department

L.A. County Fire Department USAR teams work their way through concrete tunnels as they search for survivors.

L.A. County Fire Department USAR teams work their way through concrete tunnels as they search for survivors. (Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA)

The L.A. County USAR team deployed to Mexico in 2017, as part of the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) that responded to a 7.1-magnitude earthquake. Both the L.A. and Fairfax County teams were part of the USAID DART that deployed to Nepal in 2015 after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck. Many of the scenarios in this exercise were based on real situations the teams faced during the Nepal deployment.

Though it’s rare for these USAR teams to deploy — usually only once every couple of years — it is critical that they maintain their skills. The goal of this exercise and others like it is to ensure that when the next disaster hits, everyone is ready to jump in and save lives.

“We may have different roles, but the mission is the same. We are all here to help and save lives.”

Stephanie Leland, Master Apparatus Technician, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department

 Members of L.A. County Fire and Rescue USAR team pull a 20-year-old female out of a collapsed five-story hotel as part of the simulation.

Members of L.A. County Fire and Rescue USAR team pull a 20-year-old female out of a collapsed five-story hotel as part of the simulation. (Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA)

USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response team’s operations team meets with USAR team members. Bottom right: USAID Regional Advisor Greg Holyfield discusses the day’s exercises with L.A. County Battalion Chiefs Anthony Buzzerio and Dennis Cross. / Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA

USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response team’s operations team meets with USAR team members. Bottom right: USAID Regional Advisor Greg Holyfield discusses the day’s exercises with L.A. County Battalion Chiefs Anthony Buzzerio and Dennis Cross. (Emily Rasinski, USAID/OFDA)

Editor's Note: This entry was originally published by USAID/OFDA in USAID's publication on Medium.