Christchurch, Tohoku, Haiti, Qinghai and Sumatra are just a few cities that have suffered through devastating earthquakes. The horror of the moment could only be matched for the survivors by the terror of realising you were trapped and alone in a collapsed building.
In all cases the abilities, training and equipment available to the Emergency Services can mean the difference between life and death.
In the Northern Territory we are fortunate to be in a fairly low risk area for seismic activity but that doesn’t mean our Emergency Services take a low probability approach.
Exercise ‘Paratus’ latin for prepared, was the final exercise of the Northern Territory Emergency Services Urban Search and Rescue Course which concluded last week.
Exercise Paratus put the twenty-six participants in a realistic scenario where they had an unknown number of people trapped inside a collapsed structure. Using the skills they had gained during the fifty-hour course set over two weekends the rescuers had to use all they had learned to complete the task.
Once an initial risk assessment had been carried out and the area is reasonably safe a slow, methodical search begins in what is called a ‘blitz’. Moving carefully and calling out to victims they had to listen for answering calls then locate, triage and carry or lift out the accessible injured.
Working in teams they had to identify risks and stabilise remaining structures by shoring them up using lengths of timber, chocks and cribbing equipment.
Adding to the realism the instructors would evacuate the site with three blasts of a whistle. This could be for aftershocks or a new hazard being discovered such as a leaking gas main or the presence of a fire. One blast of the whistle signalled the all clear and the blitz could continue.
The second stage of the exercise had the trainees bringing in the heavy rescue gear to free buried or trapped victims and breaching areas to continue the search for others that may be unconscious or unable to respond to the rescuer’s calls.
The purpose built training facility in the Palmerston NTES compound is an impressive mound of rubble, tunnels and half-collapsed structures that can be made to suit a wide variety of emergency situations.
The separate ‘pods’ can be accessed from above by instructors and are filled with all sorts of obstacles imaginable for the trainees to negotiate.
The course participants were up against solid concrete that they had to cut through, lift or remove, broken furniture blocking entries that had to be painstakingly removed and in one case an entire fridge had to be cut into pieces and fed out through a hole not much bigger than a person’s shoulders.
Graduates are given first class training in safety awareness, teamwork, confined space entry and exit strategies, claustrophobic conditions and the operation of power, battery and hydraulic tools.
Jackhammers, airbags, rams, cutters, spreaders, saws, concrete chainsaws, generators, pumps, compressors, ropes, pullies and vertical rescue equipment are all used in the exercise giving participants a wide skills base for any future scenario.
The trainees were in full personal protection gear which includes full length overalls, gloves, helmets, masks, goggles, radios, extra water and boots.
At the end of the course fourteen NTES volunteers, one NTES staff member, five NTFRS volunteers, two St John Paramedics and four Australian Defence Force fire fighters graduated with the Structure Collapse - Urban Search and Rescue Category One certificate.
The course is open to all PFES volunteers and permanent staff as well as outside organisations such as the military, paramedics and medical professionals.
Past graduates deployed to New Zealand and Queensland this year to answer the call for skilled rescue operatives during the disasters in those areas.
So if ever you find yourself unfortunate enough to be trapped after a disaster listen for the call “Rescue team above, can anyone hear me?” Know that your saviours are as skilled and highly trained as any organisation in Australia.
YOUR LOCAL VOLUNTEERS