In light of the devastating 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti late Tuesday, FireRescue magazine spoke with Harold Schapelhouman, former task force leader in charge of California Task Force 3. Schapelhouman offers his thoughts and insight on the current incident and the job ahead for the Fairfax and Los Angeles USAR teams. According to the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department, VATF1 is en route to Haiti now and is expected to arrive around 4 pm EST; as of this writing, CATF2 was waiting to deploy.

FireRescue Magazine:
Lessons Learned from California

People carry an injured person in Port-au-Prince after the largest earthquake ever recorded in the area rocked Haiti on Tuesday. (Radio Tele Ginen/Associated Press)
FireRescue Magazine, USAR Series:

FireRescue: Will your team be deploying to this incident?
Harold Schapelhouman: No, I won’t be deploying. There are 28 national teams, and of those, two are designated for international response: Fairfax Task Force 1 and Los Angeles County Task Force 2. Everyone wants to see these two teams get there, get in and help the affected area, but this is a country that already has major issues with its infrastructure, so it’s going to have significant challenges.

I also think we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we just had the holiday bomber that caused the emergency landing of an aircraft, and we had a swarm of earthquakes in California in the last couple of weeks. So emotionally, everyone wants to be there, but realistically, we also need resources in place here where they can be available on short order.

FRM: What are some of the first thoughts that come to mind when you consider the scope of this incident?
HS: I heard that NATO got the airfield open recently [in Haiti], so now people can go. I’m not sure where they’ll be working; they could be required to work in several different places. They first need to figure out the size and scope of the situation there, and the U.N. needs to establish static security detail. But there’s a lot in the wind right now.

When the teams get there, they know they’ve got to fight the clock. In the first hour after an incident like this, there’s a 90 percent chance of finding people alive. On day 2, that percentage will drop into the 30s. By day 7, unless there’s a miracle, which has happened in the past, you’ll do body recovery.

The part that I’m most concerned about is you can be the superstar rescuer, but if there’s no working medical facilities, what do you do? We do send disaster medical teams, but our resources might be overwhelmed, and the hospitals might be filled to capacity. Where do we put all the people? Where are they all going to go?

For those trained in collapsed structures, I’m not sure heavy equipment will be able to do everything they’ll need it to do. Because of poor construction and poor construction materials, people might be able to survive a collapse, but some may die due to respiratory issues they’ll develop from breathing in all the dust created by the collapsed structures. So the teams will need to rely on search dogs and manual labor.

It’s a disaster within a disaster. The earthquake struck an area that struggles in many ways. So in the long term, when we get into the humanitarian effort, are they just going to reshuffle the pieces and glue things back together again only to have the same type of disaster happen again years down the road? Haiti doesn’t have the money to rebuild, so how do you fix that?

FRM: How does this incident compare with other incidents you’ve been deployed to?
HS: It doesn’t. I was on hand after the Chi-Chi earthquake in Taiwan; that’s probably the closest I’ve come to an incident like the one in Haiti. But, of course, it was an entirely different culture. They treated us like rock stars; we stayed in five-star hotels. And there was a lot of faith. In Haiti, there won’t be any creature comforts. You’ve got a lot of substandard construction, or construction that was built with no standard in mind.

What can the teams expect to find when they land? What will be their first actions?
HS: These teams are very good, experienced teams. Some of the younger members won’t have any expectations. And there will be some degree of “hurry up and wait,” but then they’ll move and will need to figure out what they’re going to be doing.

The Fairfax team is on its way, but as of right now, the L.A. team is still on the ground here in the U.S. I’d be more comfortable if both teams were in country.

My thought is that I don’t want us to lose anyone, but depending on what they’ll be doing, that may change. They may also be performing some difficult tasks, such as body disarticulations. That’s a life-changing event for anyone.

The primary goal:
to be effective. They need to keep the integrity of the team, and get somewhere where they can do their best. This is their “superbowl” so I hope they’ll make a real difference.

FRM: You spoke about the infrastructure of the country earlier. Does it create an obstacle for the teams?
HS: It’s a huge obstacle for these teams because it’s another level of complete devastation. There’s nothing holding it together. There’s lots of dust, which will be affecting both civilians and responders. Heavy equipment will be needed, but I’m not sure how it’s going to get there. Buildings are made of the poorest materials, so they’ll be using the dogs a lot. It’s going to be a very manual labor-intensive job.

Sanitary conditions will also be challenging, because the hospitals will be overfilled, or the buildings themselves will be unstable and there might not be a lot of medical help.

FRM: So the teams won’t have any heavy equipment on hand?
HS: They won’t have any, but the teams will need things like excavators, maybe cranes, front-end loaders, dump trucks, etc. But I’m not sure where it will come from. I’m not sure what their mission assignment is, what they’re going to be tasked with when they get there, but their first goal will be to get where they’re needed. And they may find that out, and then find out that they can’t get there, but who knows. They won’t know until they get there.

FRM: What are the main safety considerations for an operation like this?
HS: The main concern would be unit integrity. At least on the medical side, they need to see what exists. What do they have on hand if someone gets hurt? As I said, hospitals may not be the answer.

So we must always ask the question: How do you support your own people? We assist the victims as well, but if we show that we can’t support our own people, that’s going to have a demoralizing effect and that creates its own set of problems. They need their own physicians, and they need to figure out how to get where they need to go. It’s definitely going to be a challenge.

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