Entering the hot zone – the Urban Search and Rescue team
Amongst the first to venture onto the fire ground in the aftermath of bushfires, Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Taskforce members walk among the remnants of homes lost to fire, witnessing the raw destruction up close. Read the story below or check out the video.
USAR plays a critical role during incidents, undertaking rapid damage assessments and ensuring areas ravaged by bushfire are safe for residents to return to.
Perth Station Officer Nigel Elliott is one of 60 highly qualified USAR Taskforce members in Western Australia. This skilled and diverse multi-agency group is made up of DFES firefighters, St John Ambulance special operations paramedics, and a select group of doctors, engineers, surveyors and canine handlers who bring different expertise to the team.
A firefighter in Western Australia for 18 years, Nigel joined the USAR taskforce nine years ago and said that every incident is different, whether it’s a bushfire, storm or cyclone.
“USAR can respond to incidents across the State and can also respond to interstate or overseas emergencies, such as the Christchurch earthquake in 2011 which was attended by six of our taskforce members,” Nigel said.
“A recon team is normally deployed first to assess the situation and the appropriate level of response. They determine who else should mobilise depending on what kind of skills are required, as well as the equipment needed.”
During large scale bushfires one of USAR’s main roles is to identify properties that have been impacted by fire or have the potential to be affected.
They assess the damage in a rapid manner, providing this information to the Incident Management Team so they can make decisions about how to combat the bushfire, or when it may be safe for residents to return.
“Mostly we are going into areas that have already been hit by a bushfire to assess damage rather than putting ourselves in its path, however it can depend on the situation, which can change rapidly” he said.
“During the Northcliffe bushfire my USAR team was tasked with travelling 10 kilometres ahead of the fire to see which buildings were potentially under threat, to assist with operational decision making.
“Due to the severe fire weather we were experiencing, the fire front took an unexpected turn and when we arrived it was already impacting the area, with residents requiring help.
“As a firefighter your instinct is always to put life and the community first, but at the same time you need to look after the welfare of your crew.
“That means making quick decisions but they’re not decisions that are taken lightly – you have to use all your skills and training to evaluate the risks and make those assessments.”
Nigel said the USAR team determined that during the Northcliffe bushfire they could successfully assist those residents out of the area, but his advice to people is to get out sooner rather than later to avoid the danger.
“Don’t wait for an emergency warning or a telephone alert, if you think you are at risk you should act immediately and put your bushfire survival plan into action,” Nigel said.
“If you leave it until the last minute, you can put yourself and emergency services personnel at risk.
“Firefighting or USAR crews that arrive at the scene may not be able to safely stop or gain access to an area to help individuals.”
Aside from the imminent danger during a bushfire, there are also a lot of hidden dangers on the fire ground after a bushfire has swept through.
“The damage I’ve seen has been catastrophic. With bushfire, if your property is impacted then it is usually 100 per cent damaged and there’s no salvaging it,” Nigel said.
“When we go into an area after a bushfire we are there to map the damage so that DFES and other authorities can offer assistance to residents who can’t return to their homes.
“We are also looking at any factors that are going to affect the safety of returning residents and if an area is still dangerous then we will keep the area closed off to protect residents from harm.
“The main concerns are usually fallen power lines and the potential for falling objects such as trees and branches or building materials, which can be deadly.
“For example, during Northcliffe some of our firefighters had a very close call with a falling tree. It crushed the back of the fire appliance they were in but fortunately they were able to get out of harm’s way just in time.
“Often it only takes a few days, but occasionally it can take weeks or months to ensure the area is safe and there isn’t any lingering danger.
“It is essential people don’t try and return before an area is declared safe.”
Nigel said high levels of motivation are essential to maintain the skills required for USAR.
“The initial USAR training you go through covers a multitude of skills such as heavy rescue, vertical rescue, confined space rescue, trench rescue and sub-surface rescue,” Nigel said.
“This equips you to rescue people who are trapped or injured at great heights, in confined spaces or under collapsed buildings.
“Once you’re in the taskforce you have ongoing training every month and we also have an annual 48 hour training exercise to maintain our skills and put them to the test.
“You really have to be committed to upskilling yourself and to being part of a specialist team who are dedicated to helping the community.”
Deputy Commissioner Steve Fewster said that while USAR Taskforce members may have the capability to undertake critical rescues, residents shouldn’t rely on them to save the day.
“You need to take responsibility and ensure you and your family are prepared for bushfires,” Deputy Commissioner Fewster said.
“That not only means preparing your property but also having a bushfire survival plan in place so you and your family know what to do, including leaving the area well before the fire arrives.
“If you see smoke and flames act immediately – don’t wait for a warning.”
For information about how to prepare for and respond to bushfires visit www.areyouready.wa.gov.au