New Internationalist

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Issue 222

new internationalist
issue 222 - August 1991


Thunderbirds are no-go!
High-tech search-and-rescue teams are ready to fly out of Western countries as
soon as disaster strikes on the other side of the world. But would they do
better to stay at home? Nick Cater investigates.

Gung-ho search-and-rescue teams that fly in from all over the world in the hope of saving lives in earth-quakes, floods and other disasters are facing tighter international controls now being negotiated by the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization (UNDRO). This follows increasing criticism of their high-tech approach from aid agencies working in the disaster-prone countries of the developing world.

At the same time, the future of international search-and-rescue operations have become entwined with the efforts of military establishments to find a post-Cold War role and avoid cutting their budgets.

Search and rescue is not new. The starting point for many international teams was Mexico City's devastating earthquake in 1975. Since then teams have been established in at least a dozen countries, including the US, UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Austria and Switzerland. For the Armenian earthquake in 1988, no fewer than 21 separate groups arrived.

The theory behind international search and rescue is that a team of highly trained professionals, often from national disaster units with fire, ambulance or military backgrounds, can fly into an emergency zone and immediately put their expertise and specialist equipment - from sensitive listening gear to sniffer dogs - to work to find people and bring them out alive.

The reality can be rather different. Some teams arrive too late to do much good, without the equipment or skills appropriate to that particular disaster. Few lives are saved, despite the expensive and complicated equipment shipped in. That seems not to deter international TV teams from brushing aside hard-working local people and indigenous aid organizations to record any complaints by the visitors at not being given enough assistance.

Apart from arrogance and ignorance, critics cite three reasons for suggesting that international search-and-rescue teams are of very limited use: the time they take to arrive; their lack of skills and local knowledge; and the resources they divert from locally managed disaster operations, including training programmes to prepare people against the worst.

Rapid-onset disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones and volcanoes give rescuers very little time to save lives. The limited research so far suggests that 50 per cent of people buried in earthquakes die within six hours, while 95 per cent are dead within 48 hours. Without their own jet transport and good co-ordination at either end of an intercontinental journey, search- and-rescue teams inevitably take at least 24 hours from being alerted in a Northern nation to arrival on site in the South.

Armenia's 1988 earthquake was probably the first disaster studied on the spot by an academic team as it unfolded. According to Dr Fred Krimgold of Virginia State University, this US Earthquake Reconnaissance Group found that of the estimated 15,000 people buried in rubble, 95 per cent were pulled out by the local community and Soviet teams rescued most of the rest. The 21 teams which flew in up to six days after the earthquake brought 1,427 staff and an enormous range of equipment. Despite dogs, heat-seeking cameras and powerful audio equipment, the international teams dug out only 64 of the 15,000 people saved.

'The experience of Armenia and other recent disasters,' said the US academics, 'has shown that the "golden time" period, during which trauma-induced medical needs can be met, is often limited to only a few hours. This is an impossibly short period for any international disaster medical team to make a significant impact.'

Robocop cowboy expats
Krimgold still feels there is a useful role for such teams and urges better standards, especially improved training. He is critical of the 'Robocop mentality' of some groups: 'I'd like to see a shift away from cowboy efforts by expats. We need a greater role for the local community with donors in support, not centre stage. Much of the problem is the media, with TV cameras beaming images back home by satellite; the need for political support and fundraising means there is tremendous pressure on some groups to achieve high visibility in disasters.

Ian Davis, of Oxford Polytechnic's Centre for Disaster Management, insists that an international team only has a real function if it can be on site within three hours: 'These people often have a cavalier spirit and are flabbergasted when the Government doesn't provide them with an interpreter, say, or transport. Some of these groups are a terrific drain on resources just when local people need them most.'

A good knowledge of the local languages, culture, resources and organizations, building techniques and materials, geography, health system and politics can all be crucial in effective emergency management, especially if the operations are to set the stage for a successful long-term relief and rehabilitation programme. Even a well-funded UN-backed search-and-rescue service would be hard pressed to have the correct mix of skills, experience and information instantly on tap.

Until recently, disaster medicine specialists were rarely seen as members of search-and-rescue teams. Yet the medical needs of victims often go far beyond standard first aid. Three medical conditions are most common: spinal damage requiring supports and neck braces; 'crush syndrome', which releases toxins into the blood and needs immediate plasma drips to avoid later kidney or heart failure; and dust inhalation leading to pneumonitis.

Disaster medical expert Eric Noji, of John Hopkins University in the US, spells it out: 'It is not enough to know where to find potential survivors. Search-and-rescue personnel must know what to do once these persons are located. They must have some knowledge of what specific injuries to expect as well as how to estimate relative injury severity and prognosis.'

Knowledge of building types and quality of construction is also vital because these are often crucial factors in deciding how many trapped people will live or die in earthquakes. Low-rise shanty town homes, for example, may collapse easily but they kill far fewer people - providing enough personpower is available to dig victims out immediately. Multi-storey precast concrete buildings will mean more deaths if they collapse but will also create 'voids' where survivors remain trapped. The need for the sophisticated location equipment of international search-and-rescue teams can vary unpredictably from city to city and even within urban areas.

International search-and-rescue teams are a very costly way to save a very small number of lives. Such teams can also consume scarce resources within disaster countries, while their presence can distract international attention and thus resources from the far more important efforts by local people and their organizations. While Southern governments are often reluctant to turn away any help, the resources they bring - sniffer dogs, heat-imaging cameras - would be of little use to local people even if they were left behind afterwards, and there is no possibility of a team offering training in the middle of an emergency.

Dr Peter Walker, of the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, says international teams simply do not deliver. The real priority is to work with local people: 'Our concern goes beyond rescue to the long-term well-being of the vulnerable, including rehabilitation and preparedness before the next crisis arrives. The media concentration on here-today, gone-tomorrow foreigners detracts from the heroism and effectiveness of local people who must rebuild their lives - they don't catch the next plane home.'

Another aid official adds: 'The (1990) Iranian earthquake was a very good example of the media ignoring the fact that 90 per cent of the work in a disaster is done by local people before any search-and-rescue team turns up. In any disaster our TV screens present images that suggest the solutions are nothing to do with indigenous organizations but really depend on a team from Buckinghamshire or wherever.'

Puppet Inspiration
The English town of Marlow in Buckinghamshire is base for one of the few independent groups in this field, a charity called International Rescue Corps. In a bizarre twist, International Rescue's life president is puppeteer Gerry Anderson, creator of the namesake emergency organization in the internationally popular children's TV show Thunderbirds.

The 'Commander' of International Rescue is Terry Price, an insurance broker, who runs the group from his home and is astonished if any doubt is expressed about the effectiveness of his team of several dozen unpaid volunteers, including a fire-fighter, a computer programmer and a roofing contractor. He denies that International Rescue is ineffective or can hamper local rescuers, adding: 'We have a far wider role than simply search and rescue, including assessment, co-ordination and communication. We are doing our best to cut our response time and we work closely with local rescue teams, passing on expertise on the spot.'

Price repeatedly refuses to say whether, during a decade or more of dashing to disasters, International Rescue has ever dug an earthquake victim out alive - 'I'm not interested in body counts, that's not what it's about'. Even he affirms that well-organized local people are the solution: 'I hope we do ourselves out of a job.'

Price says he does not have money to spare to attend the many meetings inspired by the UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction and intended to improve the theory, practice and professionalism of search and rescue. From Austria to the UK via Finland, the Philippines and the US, the meetings have produced recommendations on everything from satellite communications to visa requirements, including on-site disaster co-ordination centres and the incorporation of medical skills into every team.

Overall, UNDRO hopes to see international legal agreements on search and rescue but the speed with which these might be approved by governments and actually put into operation is expected to be slow. Senior UNDRO official Fabrizio Gentiloni said that the agency was, however, close to completing the first global search-and-rescue directory listing details of the experience and capabilities of up to 30 organizations committed to international disaster operations.

Gentiloni added that UNDRO hopes to strengthen links between search-and-rescue teams and local governments and emergency organizations in disaster-prone countries, to improve co-operation and communications on the ground amid chaotic conditions, and 'we hope, see the end of the well-meaning amateurs as government-backed professionals take over'.

Call for Stormin' Norman
Governments are certainly taking an interest in international search and rescue, and the entire issue has been given new impetus in recent months by factors unconnected with the UN Disasters Decade: the departure of the Cold War and the arrival of the Gulf War.

In the debate about a post-Cold War role for Western forces, some military specialists have been quick to warn that hopes of a 'peace dividend' from reduced expenditure may be in vain because the war with Iraq means new rapid-deployment units will be needed. Others are suggesting that military units should be maintained but take on international search-and-rescue capabilities.

At the same time, criticisms of the United Nations and its specialized agencies, including UNDRO and the UN High Commission for Refugees, for their supposed failure to act over the Kurds within Iraq, have led the British Prime Minister, John Major, to press for the creation of a new disaster organization which would absorb existing UN relief agencies.

Unlike UNDRO this would have its own operational capabilities and, following the precedent of Kurdistan, be able to work across national borders where necessary. Major is reported to feel that the new agency would need a strong commander - along the lines of General 'Stormin' Norman' Schwarzkopf.

Nick Cater works for the International Broadcasting Trust in London.

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