Syndicate content

Add new comment

Saving lives one building at a time: Post-disaster urban search and rescue in China

Abhas Jha's picture

We have all probably heard the old adage “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do”. Recent temblors in Haiti and earlier in China have tragically demonstrated the truth of this. Out-of-date building codes and regulations, poor enforcement and badly-planned urbanization have all greatly increased the risk of urban disasters all over the developing world.

First responders from Shanghai training for the Shanghai Expo 2010
The first 72 hours after the disaster are the critical time for urban search and rescue (USAR) teams to save people from under collapsed buildings. We have all seen the fantastic job done by the international USAR teams in Haiti. The procedural deployment and standards of these teams are coordinated by UN-OCHA’s International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG). This is a global network of more than 80 countries and organizations focusing on USAR related issues.  Members are from both earthquake-prone and responding countries. It was established in 1991 following initiatives of international USAR teams which responded to the 1988 Armenia earthquake and aims to establish standards and classification for international USAR teams as well as methodology for international response coordination in the aftermath of earthquakes and collapsed structure disasters.

Training models
In November 2009 China passed the evaluation of INSARAG External Classification  (IEC) (pdf) and became the 12th country in the world and only the second in Asia (after Singapore) to have a heavy urban search and rescue (USAR) team which qualifies for participating in international deployments. Part of the credit of this goes to a state-of-the art facility called the China National Training Base for Urban Search and Rescue (CNSART) located in the Phoenix Mountain in Haidan district of Beijing about 1.5 hours away from the city center. On a cold, windy March day part of the EAP DRM team went to see the facilities for ourselves.

The World Bank team that visited the facility, I'm the second from the left. This floor has a 15 degree tilt.
It looks like the set of a disaster movie with damaged buildings of every kind (tilted, pancake collapse etc.) and works like boot-camp for USAR teams. It has an impressive array of simulation situations, state-of-the-art equipment (optical fiber victim locating systems, which articulates in both directions to provide visual and aural evidence and allows teams to talk to a potential victim, seismic listening devices, 3-D simulation theaters etc.) The tilted building was, for us, the highlight of the building. A 15 degree tilt seems trivial till you are inside the building. We could barely walk and could not imagine how rescuers would function effectively in a real disaster scenario. Teams during training are monitored by remote video.

The markings on this wall indicate the number of victims (V), how many were alive (L) and how many dead (D)
The Bank is aiming at a broad partnership with the center both within China (under the Wenchuan Earthquake Reconstruction Project) but also broadly in EAP for capacity building for other countries. To me, CNSART represents many facets of China: the systematic manner in which the country approaches major issues (the center was inaugurated a few months after the Wenchuan earthquake, training is being rolled out to all provinces of China); state-of-the art technology and the potential for deep and broad partnership with China for sharing of knowledge and experience on disaster management.

A final footnote: There is a stark contrast between Haiti and Chile in terms of fatalities: despite being hit by an earthquake 500 times more powerful than the one that hit Haiti, deaths in Chile were 0.1 percent that in Haiti. This is partly because Chile’s codes, their enforcement and quake-resistant building techniques are among the best in the world.