In common with millions of others I watched the television on the morning of Friday March 11 and knew I was watching a disaster of immense proportions. Japan's early warning systems meant that TV cameras were in place and filming as the tsunami struck. I also took a particular personal interest as I knew, following recent national level discussions, that I may well be deploying to Japan if the Japanese government requested assistance.
UK-ISAR (International Search and Rescue) is a co-operative group of UK fire and rescue services and other organisations which responds primarily to overseas urban search and rescue emergencies on behalf of the UK government. The team is deployed as an official UK Government Team; either through the Cabinet Office for EU related deployments or through the Department for International Development (DFID) for deployment to the rest of the world.
Governance of the team is provided through CFOA arrangements and MoU between Lincolnshire FRS. The team meets UN INSARAG (International Search and Rescue Advisory Group) guidelines for a heavy rescue team which includes specialist roles for management, command, logistics, base of operations, medical and other specialism.
I became more aware of the lexicon of the INSARAG and EU Civil Protection when managing the Exercise Orion process. I was aware of UK-ISAR, but it was Orion that really raised my awareness of EUCP, OSOCC, BoO, LEMA and many other acronyms. This led to me attending the EUCP High Level Co-Ordinators (HLC) course and being placed on the EU register for overseas deployment.
Following the retirement of Mike Thomas from Lincolnshire, Dave Ramscar took on the management of UK-ISAR. With my recent experiences and training and following discussion within CFOA and Sir Ken Knight I became available to respond as a strategic lead for any UK-ISAR deployment.
I had discussed a possible deployment to New Zealand. The team were, as ever, led exceptionally well in Christchurch but mobilised without a Strategic Lead. This position was seen as necessary for future deployments and when the news of Japan came in, mobilisation seemed likely.
It soon became clear the earthquake and resulting tsunami were on such a scale that even a country as well-rehearsed in civil defence as Japan would need assistance. Preparations were soon being made by UK-ISAR in consultation with CFOA, National Resilience and the Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser while waiting for an official request for assistance from the Japanese government.
On the Friday it seemed we would be flown out from Gatwick but departure location is governed by air space and charter plane availability so overnight it changed to Manchester and at 0830 on Saturday we received the official order to mobilise. The mobilisation created particular challenges as much of the UK ISAR equipment was in transit from New Zealand. But usual Fire Service resourcefulness came into play and sufficient equipment was gathered in Manchester for the departure. Medical checks were carried out and we were soon off to Manchester airport where the media were waiting, both live and embedded journalists. Pete Stevenson, the Operational Team Leader, and I carried out the first of many media interviews. Following some delay, we departed on a 767 so old it still had ashtrays in the arms.
Briefings with the Management Team, Pete Stevenson (GMC), Command Support led by Sean Moore (West Midlands), Base of Operations (BoO) management (Hampshire), logistics led by St John Stanley (West Sussex) and the Ops Commanders, Neil Fritzsche (Lincolnshire) and John Mazzy (Kent), took place on the plane. A non-stop flight took us to US Air Force base Misawa in northern Japan where we passed through immigration and a further brief health check in a large air craft hanger.
The full article is available in the forthcoming issue of FIRE magazine.
Posted: 09.47am, 20.04.11