Search & Rescue, Part 2

   05.27.15

Search & Rescue, Part 2

Within the first seven minutes after terrorists bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building, police chief Sam Gonzales was at the still-smoldering, traumatic, and gruesome scene. It was complete bedlam, with fireman, police, and civilians swarming the rubble, pulling wounded from debris, loading ambulances with victims bound for hospitals.

“The first thing everyone wants to do in a disaster like Oklahoma City is run into the building and try to save anyone they can,” says Gonzales, who now is an Intelligence Operations Specialist for the Oklahoma City Federal Bureau of Investigation. “That’s understandable, but the first police, fire, and rescue responders must immediately get control of the situation. Civilians are not equipped, clothed, or trained to deal with such a disaster, so we first have to secure the area and set up an official rescue personnel perimeter.

“That’s hard for a lot of people rushing in to help to understand, but it’s vital to keeping more people from becoming injured. There’s glass and sharp steel everywhere, buildings are unstable, and fire and the potential for explosions are very real. This is a time for experts to take charge, and that’s what responders have got to do, and quickly.

“It takes rescuers with hard hats and proper boots, breathing apparatuses, and other special equipment to begin rescue operations in a fast, professional manner. At Oklahoma City we were fortunate that fire, rescue, and police were on the scene fast, and there was some heavy construction equipment nearby in the city that we called in to begin moving rubble and debris so we could find survivors.”

Removing rubble is a slow process because rescuers are careful not to dislodge loose debris that can rain down on survivors. It’s important, too, that searchers are not injured in their haste to rescue victims.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a well-structured procedure for disaster rescue, one that was put in place at the WTC disaster. Immediately FEMA has search and rescue specialists and structural engineers inspect a disaster site. They look for major problem areas, likely places to search for victims, determine the condition of the collapse, and be on the lookout for hazardous materials.

Next, search and rescue specialists gently and carefully move into the structure, areas not in imminent danger of collapse to get a better idea of the damage. They have blueprints of the building and note areas that need bracing and places where victims may be found. During this preliminary search, if any victim is found alive, the search halts and stabilization efforts are concentrated there to get the victim out. After this preliminary search, the detailed search begins with dogs, cameras, and listening devices.

“At Oklahoma City there weren’t many air pockets where survivors might have been waiting for rescue,” Gonzales says. “So we didn’t use small cameras dropped from cables down into the rubble or listening devices. Our best piece of equipment for finding victims in the debris was a hand-held FLIR [Foward Looking Infra Red], which locates things that give off heat, like a human body.

“But any type noise that people can make to help us find them makes sense. A whistle can be a real life saver in that situation. Rescuers are constantly stopping and listening, even when heavy equipment is on the scene. They regularly shut down noisy equipment and everyone listens carefully. You want to hear a cry or shout so badly it just hurts. A whistle would be clearly audible and draws frantic efforts by fire and rescue personnel to a nearby site.”

A victim buried in debris who has a whistle should periodically blow it loud and clear to help rescuers locate them.

“If a victim were to blow a whistle several times every 30 minutes or so, that would be a terrific aid for fireman combing rubble,” says Les McCormick, whose division of Jacksonville-trained firemen sent seven men to the World Trade Center (WTC) rescue efforts. “Naturally, if a victim hears or sees rescuers he should blow the whistle loudly and incessantly to draw attention.”

McCormick says it seems prudent in today’s terrorist climate to put together what might be called an “urban survival kit.” In such a “kit” would be a good-quality whistle, a small penlight-type flashlight with extra batteries (for signaling), a small folding pocket knife or Swiss Army knife, a small cloth face mask (to combat breathing of debris dust), and a 20 to 50 foot length of heavy cord (tourniquets).

Such items are small and can be stored in a sealable plastic bag. An even better survival kit storage unit is a hollow plastic, waterproof screw-lid container, the type used by swimmers and SCUBA divers to keep car keys, money and other valuables dry. Such a small container easily fits in a pants or jacket pocket, as well as in a lady’s purse. Yet it has plenty of storage capacity for the survival items mentioned, plus space for emergency prescribed medicines which a person may have need if trapped for several days.

“For long-term survival in a situation like the WTC collapse, a person must have water,” McCormick continues. “Many people carry bottled water with them today for convenience. In the case of terrorist-caused disasters, having a bottle of water with you in a scenario where it may take several days, or a week or more for rescuers to reach you, that water could save your life.

“Cell phones really proved their worth during the WTC attacks. Phone lines were jammed, and not all calls could get through. But cell phones still are a real asset for people trapped in a building collapse or victims of other terrorist attacks. Two-way radios, like the type used by outdoorsmen, are good, too. This type communication can bring rescuers to victims in a hurry.”

Toting an “urban survival kit,” bottled water, cell phones, and 2-way radios to work, sporting events, shopping malls, etc. may not be convenient for many Americans. But living in the United States is no longer the way it used to be. Having such things at hand may save your life and the lives of loved ones.

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