Last month over 300 people from more than 90 countries and organizations gathered in Abu Dhabi for the second International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) Global Meeting. Most people associate these search and rescue teams with the aftermath of a big earthquake, flying into the affected country bringing manpower, expertise, equipment and dogs.
Working quickly, these teams try to find people trapped in the rubble of a collapsed structure and bring them out safely. What is not often seen is the organization, training and preparation that are required in order to be able to rapidly deploy a fully certified urban search and rescue (USAR) team. The international USAR teams, with their professionalism and nearly surgical approach to searching, rescuing and providing medical support to victims, not only save lives but also serve as a symbol for the affected population that assistance is coming. This level of discipline is the result of decades of work that began in northern Armenia one December morning.
On 7 December 1988, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Armenia. For the second time within a few years, search and rescue teams from around the world headed to help. With every team using their own language, procedures and systems that did not mesh with that of any other team and a host country without the knowledge or capacity to manage the influx of international aid, the resulting operation was less than effective. The response to the Armenia earthquake led to the recognition that without coordination, communication and a common language international search and rescue teams would simply not be able to save lives within the limited “window of survival”. Over the next three years countries and organizations with an interest in improving the USAR response came together to develop a better approach. This work led to the creation of INSARAG in December 1991. A decision was made early on to give the INSARAG network a point of stability by anchoring the secretariat in OCHA, a role that continues to be held by the Field Coordination Support Section of the Emergency Services Branch (ESB).
Over the next decade the members of INSARAG worked to build tools and methodology that allow international USAR teams to work more effectively, captured in the INSARAG Guidelines. First published in 1994, these Guidelines describe how teams and countries operate, communicate and coordinate in disasters and the preparedness activities undertaken by INSARAG. In 2002, United Nations General Assembly resolution 57/150 on Strengthening the effectiveness and coordination of international urban search and rescue assistance was adopted, solidifying the role of international teams as a supplement to national capacity and the role of INSARAG methodology in guiding preparedness and response. The INSARAG community has turned this policy into concrete action through initiatives such as the INSARAG External Classification (IEC), a peer-review process that results in international recognition of a team’s ability to meet a set of minimum operational standards, greatly improving the predictability of deployed assistance.
INSARAG is a network of organizations that share the common goal of providing victims of collapsed structure emergencies a timely, professional and well-coordinated response. This global network spans more than 80 countries around the world that are prone to earthquakes and may have a need for USAR assistance, as well as those who are able to provide such assistance when needed. From Algeria to Venezuela, national institutions and NGOs have developed and agreed to a common methodology to prepare for and respond to disasters. These organizations choose to be involved in the INSARAG network, to dedicate resources to its activities and to make changes to their own methodology to fit with that of the collective. Chile is a great example of this commitment. Following an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in 2010, the Government decided to embody the INSARAG methodology and built their national USAR capacity on the basis of the Guidelines, and are currently serving as Chair of the Americas Regional Group.
Earlier this fall, Chile also hosted an INSARAG Regional Exercise, inviting organizations in the region to take part in a full-scale national earthquake response exercise. This exercise, held annually in three regions – the Americas; Asia-Pacific; and Africa-Europe-Middle East – has evolved over the years to include other elements of the humanitarian system, most recently the Humanitarian Country Teams (HCTs) and Emergency Medical Teams (EMTs). Through these exercises, INSARAG helps to support national and international preparedness and to increase familiarity with some of OCHA’s response tools that are managed by ESB. The Virtual On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (Virtual OSOCC) provides an online platform for sharing information and is hosted by the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) which issues the first notifications of an incident. In the affected country, coordination mechanisms are set up through the deployment of a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team that has the lead role in ensuring effective coordination of the response through the OSOCC system.
The OSOCC concept, including the Virtual OSOCC, and the UNDAC system are innovations that were developed by INSARAG to coordinate the work of international USAR teams but quickly proved useful in many other contexts. Over the last twenty years UNDAC teams have found themselves in floods, tropical storms, environmental emergencies, disease outbreaks, and of course, earthquakes. Embracing INSARAG tools outside of the USAR domain can also be seen in the adoption of professional classification of disaster response teams (INSARAG’s IEC process) by the World Health Organization for Emergency Medical Teams (EMTs). In addition to working closely with EMTs, INSARAG connects with other networks such as the Humanitarian Civil-Military Coordination (UN-CMCoord), which includes the appropriate use of Military and Civil Defence Assets (MCDA) in support of humanitarian emergency operations. The MCDA project was developed around the same time as, and in close collaboration with INSARAG, and galvanised the current UN-CMCoord network. Recognizing the importance of strengthening the capacity of Member States, INSARAG members have also been developing ways to translate their international knowledge into national and local preparedness. The First Responder Training Package, developed in cooperation with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, builds local capabilities to better respond to collapsed structures.
An organization, or in this case a network, that is content with the status quo will eventually be left behind in a rapidly changing world. For INSARAG, the Global Meeting in Abu Dhabi provided an opportunity to reflect on the present state and to consider the future path of the network. The meeting culminated in the adoption of the INSARAG Abu Dhabi Declaration outlining the network’s commitment to continue work in tandem with the broader humanitarian community. It highlights common standards and methodology for preparedness and response, capacity-building at all levels – local to global, ongoing progress to ensure fit for purpose and continued emphasis on building and nurturing relationships with and within the network. INSARAG needs to better engage with smaller and emerging teams, to support the dissemination and internalization of the methodology in the updated Guidelines across all teams, to narrow the knowledge gap between policy and operations, and to continue to influence and innovate as they have done for the last twenty-five years.