Training For a Nightmare: How First Responders Prepare For The Worst

As rescuers scanned for life in sub-zero temperatures after the Thredbo landslide, the dangerously unstable site and freezing conditions stalled search efforts and caused equipment to seize.

One of Australia’s most popular holiday spots became the site of one of our greatest tragedies when 18 people died in the landslide in 1997.

It marked a turning point in the way authorities responded to natural disasters in Australia.

disaster training
Photo: article supplied

“We’ve gone really from a system that was ad hoc and everyone was doing the best they can to a system that’s well-maintained and regulated,” Fire & Rescue New South Wales Chief Superintendent Paul Bailey said.

In 1997, Fire & Rescue NSW had about 30 urban search and rescue trained staff — now the figure is almost 10 times that.

Training and technology have both vastly improved in the past 20 years.

Australia now has two internationally accredited urban search and rescue teams, meaning they can deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice.

Six hours to get in the air

The NSW team is one of two in Australia to hold classifications with United Nations International Search and Rescue Advisory Group.

“When we’re told there’s an incident we need to be up and out of the here in six hours,” Chief Superintendent Bailey said.

“So that means getting a team of 72 people, all our equipment, which is over 36 tonnes of equipment, all together onto a cargo plane and anywhere in the world within six hours.”

Responding quickly is crucial — search and rescue crews say after around 100 hours life expectancy falls significantly.

They’ve been tested too. Firefighters say in 2011, Australian crews got to the Christchurch earthquake before some teams from Auckland.

The NSW team was deployed to the Japan earthquake and tsunami and also Tropical Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in 2015.

To remain permanently prepared, the search and rescue teams train in gruelling and realistic scenarios.

“What we do is simulate a pancake collapse — so that’s when building floors topple on top of one another,” Fire & Rescue’s Manager of Specialised Operations Darryl Dunbar said.

“Then our crews have to make entry through those floors to gain an entry underground to access that tunnel network.”

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