The Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Coordination Mechanism introduced by the United Nations International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) is critical for international disaster response, to provide effective and efficient tactical operations to lessen victim mortality.
The INSARAG Coordination Management System (ICMS) was implemented on 1 January 2020 and helps to enhance the operational effectiveness of coordination and information exchanges between USAR teams and other stakeholders, such as the local emergency management agency (LEMA) of the affected country and Emergency Medical Teams (EMT) in major disasters.
USAR coordination mechanism
When large-scale disasters occurr, such as earthquakes, international assistance can be requested by the affected country. To ensure a smooth deployment and to respect the affected country’s sovereignty, all classified USAR teams follow a designated coordination mechanism for international humanitarian assistance, in particular USAR missions under the INSARAG guidelines. Simply, the coordination structures consist of Reception Departure Centre (RDC), USAR Coordination Cell (UCC) and Virtual On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (VOSOCC).
In the modern century, sharing and analysing data through new technology can enhance operational efficiency and quality. In this article, VOSOCC and ICMS are both good examples.
Virtual On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (VOSOCC)
All USAR teams must get approval before they start their journey. The affected country will update the information and types of assistance, e.g. USAR, EMT or individual resources, in the VOSOCC, which is a real-time online coordination platform that allows for information exchange. Other information from INSARAG coordination structures and USAR teams will be updated in the VOSOCC too.
Reception Departure Centre (RDC)
The first-arriving classified USAR team is required to set up and operate RDC to serve as the first coordination point at the airport or other point of entry. The RDC staff, which include the RDC Manager, RDC Operations Officer and RDC Support Officer, will work diligently with incoming USAR teams, local emergency management authority (LEMA), United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team (UNDAC), On-Site Operations Coordination Centre and USAR Coordination Cell. Its function is facilitating immigration and customs procedures for incoming USAR teams, registration and providing latest situational and operational briefings to the arriving USAR teams as well.
USAR Coordination Cell (UCC)
The UCC is a coordination hub for all USAR activities and resources as well as liaison with RDC, LEMA and OSOCC. Their work includes establishing incident objectives and rescue priories, monitoring rescue progress and gathering all USAR related information. It is set up by the first-arriving classified USAR team. At least five UCC staff will be needed to cover the roles of UCC Manager, UCC Operations Officer, UCC Planning Officer, UCC Logistics Officer and UCC Information Management Officer.
On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC)
The OSOCC is a platform for overall coordination and facilitation of international relief activities at a disaster site among USAR teams, LEMA and other international humanitarian agencies like WHO EMT. It is usually operated by the UNDAC and assisted by USAR teams.
Assessment, Search and Rescue level (ASR)
In large-scale USAR operations, it is necessary to divide the five operational levels as sequential activities. Normally different USAR teams will work together level by level until the end of the operation.
ASR 1 (Wide Area Assessment):
The preliminary assessment will be conducted for assigned area, to identify scope and types of hazards as well as the establishment of rescue priorities.
ASR 2 (Worksite Triage Assessment):
The further assessment will be conducted for allocated sector, to identify specific and viable live rescue sites to allow assignment prioritisation and make a plan of action.
ASR 3 (Rapid Search and Rescue):
Rapid USAR activities can be completed within a few hours.
ASR 4 (Full Search and Rescue):
This level is normally carried out after or in conjunction with ASR 3, requiring a wide range of USAR techniques.
ASR 5 (Total Coverage Search and Recovery):
This level is usually done after all rescue phases and only recovers deceased victims. In this stage, USAR teams might assist to clear bodies, upon request from the LEMA.
In international USAR operations, the USAR teams need to fill in various designated INSARAG forms from the mobilisation to the demobilisation of the deployment. It helps UCCs to make appropriate decisions timely for determination of rescue priorities, analysis and monitoring of USAR activities during the disaster.
The USAR teams can fill in most INSARAG forms through the ICMS, except the Patient Treatment Form.
The management of USAR teams must upload the form to the VOSOCC before departure after they have approval from the affected country. The teams will declare their manpower, resources and contact person.
The report for USAR teams used to collect information from assigned worksite for prioritization.
The Worksite Assignment Form:
The form for UCC officials used to task teams to appropriate worksites.
Worksite Report Form:
The report for USAR teams used to report the progress of rescue activity in a worksite in ASR 3 and ASR 4 for a specific work period as well as handover procedure.
Victim Extrication Form:
The form for USAR teams used to collect basic information about the individual victim who extricated from the debris during ASR 3 and ASR 4.
Patient Treatment Form:
The form for USAR teams used to collect medical information about victims extricated and handed over to medical teams during ASR 3 and ASR 4. It is the only form cannot be filled in by ICMS because it normally used by EMT or local hospitals.
INSARAG Coordination Management System (ICMS)
Obviously, the workloads during a large-scale USAR operation are extremely high. As mentioned above, USAR teams and UCC both need to handle many INSARAG forms and information. Ineffective information collection and processing could lead to dire consequences. With the full implementation of the ICMS, thereby strengthening the USAR operational effectiveness. The ICMS is an INSARAG methodology web-based system. It consists of an ESRI software which is one of the world’s geographic information systems (GIS) and links up with a mobile app named Survey123.
During the USAR operation, all deployed USAR teams can log in to the Survey123 app and fill in the INSARAG e-forms before they depart from their homeland and at the affected country using their smart mobile devices. The OCOCC, RDC and UCC as well as other USAR teams can monitor all information on the ICMS Dashboard automatically and immediately via the shortcut link in VOSOCC. One of the advantages of using ICMS is to collect, analyse and manage all information integrated from various stakeholders automatically. It saves much time for editing data and collecting paper forms between RDC, UCC and worksites. In addition, with the aid of camera-equipped mobile devices, real-time images of worksites can be transmitted to UCC for assessment and operational strategy as well.
In order to avoid system failure, paper forms for the international deployment are still needed for backup.
Experience on Beirut Port Explosion
On 4 August 2020, a warehouse containing large quantities of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut. As a result, more than 20 km from the port area was severely damaged. Upon the request for international USAR assistance by the Lebanese authorities, 13 international USAR teams from 10 countries were immediately deployed under the auspices of INSARAG.
It was the first time for the USAR teams and UCC personnel to use the ICMS to coordinate large-scale incident in international deployment. Although there were not all responders onsite familiar with ICMS, but the incident proved that it is valuable in USAR operations which strengthen analysis of data gathered on the ground and for better coordination of teams.
On the afternoon of 4 August 2020, two explosions occurred at the port of the city of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. The second explosion was extremely powerful, and caused at least 200 deaths, 5,000 injuries, US$10–15 billion in property damage, and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless.
The event was linked to about 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – equivalent to around 1.2 kilotons of TNT (5.0 TJ) – which had been stored in the port for six years.
The explosion was detected by the United States Geological Survey as a seismic event of magnitude 3.3; was felt in Turkey, Syria, Israel and parts of Europe; and was heard in Cyprus more than 250km away. It is considered to be one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history.
The INSARAG system was activated and 12 UN Classified USAR teams along with other UN agencies deployed in support of the Lebanese people. A part of this deployment a USAR Coordination Cell (UCC) was established and the INSARAG Information, Coordination and Management System (ICMS) was stood up to help coordinate the Rescue and Recovery efforts.
The INSARAG Information Management Working Group (IMWG) stood up to support the first deployment of ICMS through a Remote Operational Support Cell (CASPER), that is designed to support the introduction of ICMS into the INSARAG USAR environment until the system becomes established and embedded.
To better support the application of ICMS, Experts from the INSARAG Information Management Working Group (IMWG) supported the system 24/7 remotely.
ICMS was deployed into an active disaster with all teams and UCC and with a range of skills and understanding of the system and how it works. In addition, the deployment was not into an environment that conformed to the current INSARAG methodology, with teams assigned sectors for triage and operations and subsequently reassigned to worksites based on priority.
It is accepted that there is the potential for a range of operating methodologies and ICMS is able to cope with a range of these, but the alternative methodology was not in place and a number of errors and procedural issues appeared.
The system worked very well and despite the variation in familiarity of the teams using it, we in IMWG were very pleased with ICMS’s first deployment into a real-life event.
Part of the reason it worked so well was a new element from IMWG that worked remotely to support UCC and teams as the worked in the field. This help came from all around the world and included a deployed IMWG member in UCC as part of NED1, and remote support 24/7 from the other team members working on an informal rota.
This was a learning experience for all and some parameters need to be applied to ensure that the intent of the remote support function remains as a support function and not a decision-making one.
The deployment of ICMS into the Beirut port explosion event was a success, in that while not everything went as planned in the deployment ICMS contributed to a successful INSARAG deployment.
There are a few tweaks that need to be completed on the main system and potentially some methodology that should be developed around non-standard deployments. However, from a system perspective ICMS performed well.
The main issues were a lack of familiarity of teams using the system, a non-standard methodology used (Sector-based assignments vs worksite UCC tasks ones).
The big question and significant factor is the use of ICMS as a UCC tool and how IMWG can support this as interim measure, and also how we can ensure that UCC has the best chance of managing any event effectively. This may be a specialist UCC element deployed or an integrated remote support UCC. UCC is not about ICMS, it’s about the whole integrated coordination model, and this should be front of mind when discussing how we make this more effective.
- INSARAG Coordination and Management System Briefing
- INSARAG Guidelines 2020 Volume II: Preparedness and Response Manual B: Operations
- INSARAG Technical After-Action Review on the Beirut Port Explosion Response Report
- INSARAG USAR Coordination Manual