Urban search and rescue looking for new volunteers

Search and rescue — it is a matter of finding people in the wilderness, pulling them off sinking ships and rescuing injured mountain climbers, right? Wrong. Search and rescue can happen in a city, too, and not just for a missing person. How about when a building — from a house to a skyscraper — collapses, or a highway overpass or bridge falls to ruin? That is search and rescue, too: urban search and rescue (USAR).

In Victoria, this capability is provided by volunteers. Students are welcome, said Rob Johns, the Victoria USAR team leader, in an email interview. “Our minimum requirement is that you be 19 years. Our team is a diverse cross-section of society. We ask that every interested applicant sit through an orientation where we run them through information on the team, what types of training we engage in and what to expect as a team member. We ask that volunteers think of this as a longer-term commitment, rather than something to do for just a few months.” USAR is a complex discipline with many specialized skills that take time to acquire. Currently, there are 25 USAR volunteers in Victoria, though a recent orientation session brought out 50 new interested persons.

Training to acquire USAR skills is the second Tuesday night and fourth weekend of every month. New members go through a probationary period where attendance is absolutely mandatory; “after this probationary period and an assessment, probationary members will be considered senior members and the attendance requirement is slightly relaxed,” Johns said.

Training is designed to provide the city with a medium USAR capability.

“Our current goal is to provide the city and its residents with a medium-level USAR team. The team is still growing and learning but is well equipped at this point to respond to whatever the city may need,” Johns said.

Typical medium USAR operations are a maximum of 24 hours long and include the ability to deal with collapsed houses and collapsed medium-sized buildings, like UVic’s Bookstore or the University Centre. Tools range from simple — sledge hammers, pry bars and bolt cutters — to more complex tools like pneumatic jacks, jack hammers, cutting torches and rebar shears. There is an expectation the team will be able to shore up and reinforce portions of a collapsed building to facilitate rescue and use ropes and harnesses to enter structures and pull people out. Injuries expected include at most one or two in life-threatening condition, with up to five “walking wounded” — people with fractures or other non-life-threatening injuries.

In addition to the standard capabilities and equipment, the Victoria team owns a seismic and acoustic sensor system for detecting vibrations in ground, rubble and air such as may be made by victims. There is no integral K-9 component for human search due to the years of training necessary for both dog and handler, but the team has trained with the Canadian Search & Disaster Dogs Association. Besides these advanced techniques, “we constantly train on manual search techniques and mapping skills that create a better sense of situational awareness,” Johns said.

For more advanced USAR in situations like earthquakes, there is a Heavy USAR unit in Vancouver, which is partially maintained with federal funding. Their deployments are longer (up to 10 days) and can deal with the largest building collapses, like the fall of a skyscraper; during such disasters, local teams may often back up the heavy team.

To volunteer for Victoria’s USAR team, contact Victoria Emergency Management Agency at vema@victoria.ca or call 250-920-3373.

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