By Zachary Smith, FirstNet Emergency Management Specialist, and Fairfax County volunteer firefighter
The FirstNet team was recently treated to an insider’s look at the urban search and rescue effort in Nepal following the devastating April 25, 2015 earthquake when John Morrison, Planning Section Chief of the Urban Search and Rescue Team, Virginia Task Force 1, delivered a presentation at our Reston headquarters about the Task Force’s role in the effort. His presentation provided interesting details about how responders established and used communications used during the search and rescue operation.
The Task Force, sponsored by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, is one of 28 FEMA task force teams that conduct urban search and rescue domestically. Virginia Task Force 1 is additionally one of two U.S.-based urban search and rescue teams, together with LA County’s California Task Force 2, that is a partner with USAID to provide international assistance. Virginia Task Force 1 consists of about 200 search, rescue, medical, command and general staff, logistics, engineers, and canine members. The team specializes in wide area search and rescue, as well as technical rescue from reinforced concrete structures.
At the time of the Nepal earthquake on Saturday April 25, 2015, according to Mr. Morrison, the Virginia team was in the middle of its annual drill. The drill was immediately cut short, and a team of 57 people and six dogs flew out from Dover Air Force Base on an Air Force C-17 with 30 tons of cargo headed for Nepal. The team included members dedicated to search operations, technical rescue operations, providing medical care, and conducting engineering assessments of collapsed structures. They brought communications equipment, IT, rescue equipment, and medical equipment.
Mr. Morrison explained that the earthquake was magnitude 7.8, and fairly shallow, resulting in more damage at the surface. Over eight thousand people died, and more than 23,000 were injured and more than 450,000 were displaced. Within four hours of landing in Kathmandu, Virginia Task Force 1 had teams doing preliminary reconnaissance of the disaster scene. A week later, he said there were fewer and fewer live rescues, and the search and rescue team, no longer needed for extrications, turned to structural assessments.
On the ground, Mr. Morrison said communications worked fairly well. The Virginia team brings its own radio systems that operate on multiple bands. In most cases, they set up their own repeater near the disaster site. But in Kathmandu, the elevation of their repeater was only 20-30 feet off the ground, on top of the U.S. Embassy. This proved to be ineffective when situated in a valley surrounded by the Himalayas. Fortunately, the Embassy had its own permanent repeater on a nearby mountain, providing coverage across the whole valley. The Virginia team was able to reprogram their portable radios to the Embassy’s frequencies, ensuring reliable push-to-talk communications. The Embassy also had radios in some of their cars connected to the mountain side repeater, and these became communication hubs for the teams in the field.
Mr. Morrison said that the cell networks were largely functional, allowing satellite calls, regular cell calls, and texts to get through. Text messaging, he said, was the best way to efficiently communicate with the team. The team’s connectivity also includes portable hot spots to ensure all of the command functions had reliable data coverage. He explained that the team employs tablets in the field to collect data from the incident site including location, victims, structural assessments, rescue actions, and medical interventions. The tablets also allow the rescuers to see their real-time location (using offline mapping tools) and track their location for future analysis. This data in turn provides insights into the planning process determining where the next searches should occur.
The experience of Virginia Task Force 1 in Nepal is of keen interest to FirstNet to help us further our understanding of how new technologies can support first responders during search and rescue operations, and I would like to thank Mr. Morrison for sharing his insights with us.