In international Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) missions, the well-trained and competent USAR teams from different countries are critical for life-saving activities in affected countries. To achieve this, an internationally recognized classification system is set up by the United Nations (UN).
Under the existing mechanism, team designators 01 to 09 are for classified USAR teams, designators 10 through 99 are to be used for non-classified teams. In the past, a USAR team at light level was not recommended to join the international USAR mission. However, they can make contributions after 2021. The article shares the milestone of the light USAR teams in the classification system.
The global hub of USAR
The International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) is a global network of more than 90 countries and organizations under the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). It was established in 1991 after the Armenia Earthquake in 1988 and the Mexico City Earthquake in 1985. The international community found that a standardized protocol for international humanitarian assistance was necessary in both serious earthquakes.
The INSARAG deals with USAR-related issues, aiming to establish minimum international standards for USAR teams and methodology for international coordination in earthquake response based on the INSARAG Guidelines endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 57/150 of 2002, on ‘Strengthening the Effectiveness and Coordination of International Urban Search and Rescue Assistance’. To achieve these objectives, the INSARAG issues the INSARAG Guidelines, which is an internationally accepted document defining a methodology, to guide international USAR teams and countries affected by a sudden-onset disaster causing large-scale structural collapse. It also outlines the role of the UN in assisting affected countries in on-site coordination.
One of the purposes of the Guidelines is to provide a standard to develop and maintain competent USAR teams. They shall be able to locate, extricate and initially stabilise victims who are trapped under debris in a large-scale structural collapse effectively, efficiently and safely.
For the USAR teams to familiarize themselves with the Guidelines in operations and build up close partnerships, the INSARAG organizes annual Earthquake Response Exercises (ERE) in different regions.
Why can the Light USAR team start their global mission under the INSARAG umbrella after 2021?
Actually, the standards for Light USAR teams have been covered in the INSARAG Guidelines already, but in previous versions, the IEC is applied for the Medium and Heavy teams only. The INSARAG mentioned that: ‘Due to their limitations, Light USAR teams do not partake in the IEC process and therefore do not normally deploy internationally’ (INSARAG Guidelines 2015 – Volume 1: Policy). From another point of view, the Light USAR teams could not get the global recognition under the classification process. Under the existing mechanism, the affected country has the absolute right to choose the international USAR teams according to factors like the country of the team, the capacity level and so on. As the classification is one of the indicators for the capacity level, in some situations, Light USAR teams might not be allowed to offer assistance. However, this has been changed from 2021.
Referring to the experiences in the international USAR missions, such as the Nepal Earthquakes in 2015, many Light USAR teams from different countries made valuable contributions in the USAR activities. They successfully cooperated with the local emergency management agency (LEMA) and other international USAR.
Therefore, the INSARAG Light Team Working Group was set up to study the framework and quality assurance to support the deployment of classified Light USAR teams in the international deployment environment. As a result, the Light USAR teams are permitted to participate in the classification according to the INSARAG Guidelines 2020. Meanwhile, the classified Light USAR Teams will be incorporated into the international USAR operations mechanism from 2021 officially.
‘Guarantee of effective and professional international assistance’ is the goal of classification. It is an important process for providing a systematic and independent process to determine the capacity level of individual USAR teams under the INSARAG Guidelines, which define the operational minimum standard for international USAR operations while in the preparation, response and rehabilitation phases. The three levels of capacity are Light, Medium and Heavy.
Any USAR teams interested in taking the classification should be nominated by the INSARAG National Focal Point. The team must also assign a mentor for professional advice for the process as well as prepare documents (named Abbreviated Portfolio of Evidence, A-POE) at the time of the application.
The INSARAG Secretariat will evaluate whether the USAR team is prepared to meet the standards required for the classification within the timeline. Once the INSARAG is satisfied with everything, the team will be busy in the next two years. During the period, they need to communicate with the mentor closely to ensure the team has sufficient capacity in training and resources to dedicate the international deployment administratively and operationally. There was also a strong emphasis on training during the two years which focused not only on operational techniques but also on the knowledge for the USAR coordination management system and international humanitarian assistance mechanism.
Classifier team and observers
The team is assigned by the INSARAG Secretariat. It is formed by the experts from different classified teams in the world. The size depends on the capacity of the USAR teams. For example, four classifiers will be responsible for Light USAR teams. Each USAR component has a designated classifier(s) to handle the related matters. Those classifiers are trained to discharge their duties. For learning purposes, it is recommended to invite observers for the classification process.
They are not only to prove it by documentation but also required to display their capacity in a 36-hour exercise (FIELDEX) in front of classifiers. The exercise simulates the team joining the international USAR mission as the first arrival team. They are required to display the ability and mobilisation of the team, handling of departure and arrival for customs and immigration, setting up Reception Departure Centre (RDC), Urban Search and Rescue Coordination Cell (UCC) and Base of Operations (BoO), conducting on-site USAR operations and demobilisation.
After they pass in the first classification, i.e. INSARAG External Classification (IEC), they will be recognized by the INSARAG as a classified USAR team. In order to ensure their capacity, these teams are required to pass the INSARAG External Re-classification (IER) after five years. They can choose to maintain, upgrade or downgrade their capacity level in the IER.
Operational capacity of Light USAR teams
Every USAR Team comprises the five components required by the INSARAG Guidelines (Management, Logistics, Search, Rescue and Medical). For the Light level, it is suggested to consist of 17–20 members, led by team leader and their deputy, one planning officer, one safety officer, nine search and rescue crew members, one medical doctor, one paramedic or nurse and two logistics team crews. Each operational position on the team structure needs a minimum redundancy ratio of 2:1 for any member’s absence.
The Light USAR team is expected to have the ability to be self-sufficient for USAR operations to ASR3 at a single worksite for 12 hours per day for up to five days.
ASR means Assessment, Search and Rescue. It defines the five levels of large-scale USAR operations by the Guidelines, i.e. ASR1: Wide Area Assessment, ASR2: Sector Assessment, ASR3: Rapid Search and Rescue, ASR4: Full Search and Rescue, and ASR5: Total Coverage Search and Recovery (INSARAG Guidelines 2020 – Volume 2: Manual B Operations). It covers the works from initial assessment to recovery of the last deceased victim at scene. The Light USAR teams can work with ASR3, which implies they can conduct USAR operations in collapsed structures of wood, masonry and light reinforced concrete construction. Normally they can conduct the operations within a few hours so that they will hand over the case of deeply trapped victims to Medium or Heavy teams.
In order to effectively handle the USAR operations, the Light USAR teams shall equip search dogs and/or technical search devices (e.g. life detectors) for searching activity and have the capability of rigging and lifting 1-tonne (manual)/5-tonne (mechanical) objects, basic shoring for stabilisation of doors or windows as well as cutting and breaking specified steel reinforced concretes (thickness: 200mm), timbers (thickness: 200mm) and metal plates (Thickness: 3mm) in rescue activity. Besides, they shall rescue a casualty from 10m above or below the worksite.
In the medical area, the team shall provide primary care and life support to the team members, search dog (if any) and victims, including trauma support, haemorrhage control and infectious disease precautions.
Logistics is an important part behind the USAR operations, in particular during international deployment. The logistic team needs to ensure that all equipment is well maintained and fully operational at all times from mobilization in the home country to demobilization in the affected country. The logistics manager shall establish and manage the BoO including shelter, sanitation and feeding.
There is a popular saying in Chinese that ‘a snake without a head cannot crawl’. When applied to the USAR, it means the team cannot function without management. In this area, the team leader and their deputy need to manage all aspects of team operations and coordination with the stakeholders effectively and safely.
Conclusion and prospects
Previously, only classified Medium and Heavy USAR teams were officially recognized to take part in international USAR operations. Obviously, it takes many resources for form-up and deployment, which has been discouraging some developing countries and NGOs.
The INSARAG Guidelines 2020 provide a clear direction and pathway for the Light USAR team interested in international humanitarian assistance work. However, they are required to go through the stringent classification process to certify the team’s competencies.
As of today, the first classified Light USAR team has not yet been born, but I know they are working very hard to prepare for success. I would like to take the opportunity to send my most sincere wishes to them and look forward to seeing the first Light team in the classified team list.
For more information, go to www.insarag.org
- INSARAG Secretariat (2015), INSARAG Guidelines 2015, Geneva
- INSARAG Secretariat (2020), INSARAG Guidelines 2020, Geneva
- INSARAG Secretariat (2017), Introduction to Light USAR Teams for International Response, Geneva
- OCHA (2015), USAR Nepal Earthquake Response Technical Evaluation, Geneva