Spending much of the last 30 years involved directly or indirectly in the rescue-equipment business has provided an interesting perspective from which to view disaster events occurring around the world. Regardless of one’s personal views on climate change or global warming, a quick Google search will confirm that natural disasters since the 1960s have increased significantly across the globe.
Over the last few years, it occurred to me that hurricanes, cyclones, tsunamis, windstorms, flooding, mudslides, earthquakes or volcanic activity appear to be happening more frequently in developed nations than they have in the past. I recognise this purely by observation, but it got me thinking about the differences in how a major event would unfold and the increased options available in more developed countries such as the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Italy, France, Germany, USA, Japan and China.
Disasters in the developed nations of the world have different needs than those occurring in rural, isolated areas, e.g. the mountains of the Himalayas or island nations in the Caribbean.
Before I continue, I think it important to point out that regardless of where a disaster occurs the human suffering, anguish, grief and loss is the same. In addition, the efforts of rescue teams are valiant no matter what their geographic location or what their level of training or equipment cache might be.
That said, I also think it is important to recognise that in more developed countries, there exist notable differences in how a rescue is approached and the training equipment and coordination of personnel can dramatically improve outcomes as they unfold.
Developed nations possess the economic ability to fund better infrastructure for their citizens. They’ve had the time to organize, plan and execute on proactive initiatives that establish and improve public safety. As a result, they tend to have better construction practices and use higher-quality building materials in residential and commercial buildings as well as major infrastructure projects, e.g. dams, bridges, roadways, etc., which in a perfect world are regularly maintained and updated based on best practice. Robust building codes supported by laws, regulations and standards are the foundation on which infrastructure safety is built. Many jurisdictions such as my home here in Vancouver, Canada are taking proactive steps to minimise the aftermath of a major disaster by implementing seismic upgrades to structures built under older codes of practice for many public buildings and infrastructure developments. Properly-built dams, dykes, levees and reservoirs can greatly mitigate many water-related disasters.
Another area where developed countries can differ is in communication networks that have more extensive coverage and are more robust, for example FirstNet, Tetra, LTE, 4G, 5G. The ability to adapt quickly and get communication services up and running following a disaster is a key component in the successful rescue operation and a faster recovery of a devastated area. A resilient communication infrastructure can greatly influence the selection of tools that rescuers utilise to simplify, plan, coordinate and respond during an actual event. Many teams carry in their equipment cache portable mobile communication systems, which can be configured specifically for their needs, and these can include mobile phones, radios and satellite communication, allowing them the ability to reach out to the internet and/or create their own Wi-Fi hotspot or bubble. These days it is commonplace for a rescue team to rely on technology such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) to help them with mapping, coordination and record keeping during an event.
Incident management and training
The training and management of teams situated in developed countries is typically much higher than that in emerging countries. They possess the equipment and the support of emergency-management protocols and procedures that allow them to coordinate activities on the ground using an agreed, pre-planned Command and Control System.
Many developed nations have multiple in-country or mutual-aid resources that can be marshalled individually or in unison during a time of crisis. These resources have training systems and standards of accreditation so that incident commanders have a clear understanding of each team’s skills, equipment and capabilities. This allows them to manage teams from different areas and have a baseline from which to operate. Layered on top of the capabilities is a highly effective and resilient system of emergency-management protocols and procedures to coordinate an overall disaster response. The International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) have, since 1991, been working to harmonise systems and structures to facilitate coordination between various USAR teams who deploy internationally. Currently INSARAG is working in over 90 countries, developing a minimum standard and methodology for USAR teams. Programmes such as the United Kingdom’s National Resilience model or the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) USAR Task Force concept are both great examples of mature country-specific organisational systems.
All the above issues impact directly or indirectly the selection of equipment by rescue teams around the world. Even countries with strict building regulations can create unintended difficulties for rescue personnel. For example, harder concrete with more rebar takes much longer to cut through and requires much heavier breaching and breaking equipment such as drills, hammers and saws. Also, heavier loads need higher-quality hydraulic or pneumatic shoring and stabilisation systems. Lifting and moving equipment need to be robust so products such as low- or high-pressure air bags, jacks and wedges need to be designed and built to high specifications.
Technology companies focused on developing electronic equipment for rescue applications are helping to address the demands of emergency service teams and managers, allowing for better communication as well as shareable data. Products that can fuse multiple data sources such as vision, sensor and location data in real time can offer up the possibility of unlocking the capabilities of rescue resources not on the ground. Gas monitoring equipment is now available with Bluetooth enabled; information can be recorded and monitored remotely along with biometric sensor data and location data on respiratory protection equipment.
The ability to gather and disseminate information locally, domestically or internationally could potentially result in a force multiplier and an effective yet powerful tool in the rescue team’s tool box.
A good example of this new breed of mobile integrated electronic equipment is the patented FirstLook360 (FL360) Spherical Vision Search & Rescue Camera. Designed, developed and manufactured from the ground up by Agility Technologies, the FL360 has the ability to capture images with audio and encode recordings with camera serial number, time, date and GPS location. The patented design removes the necessity for a mechanical articulated camera head and makes it perfect for USAR operations. The FL360 links wirelessly with its visual display control tablet and is interactive through fingertip control/pinch-to-zoom functions. Other features such as mapping overlay, still or 360° video capture and view allow the ability to share any of the captured data via a mobile network. This makes FL360 an extremely versatile rescue tool. As a testament to the power of this new technology, the FirstLook360 system was included in the 2019 FEMA approved equipment cache list for USAR teams in the United States. Task Force team leaders evaluated FL360 and recognised it as much more than an old-school search camera and concluded it provided a more flexible, adaptable and functional system with applications in Vehicle Extrication, HAZMAT, Collapse, Confined Space, Fire Investigation and more.
I think that the above is a good summary of what I have observed happening in the global rescue community. In addition to the factors listed above there is a generational change happening in the emergency services globally. Younger people are much more comfortable and have different expectations of technology and equipment to those of us more seasoned individuals who might have a love-hate relationship will electronic devices.
That said, I genuinely believe it is time to begin to break the paradigm and start thinking about how new technologies and new capabilities can be harnessed most effectively by those on the ground to improve outcomes and drive the evolution of rescue forward.