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international civil servants in Geneva

International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG)
International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG)
25 Feb 2020

Celebrating 30 Years of Global Standards for Quality Preparedness and Response.

The first survivors are being rescued by family members, passers-by and neighbors locating and carrying them or leading them into the streets. The injured, and those shocked and dazed by what has happened, lie or sit in the streets, some being treated by the first medical personnel to respond. Local emergency services begin to respond and start to coordinate the rescue efforts as best they can. Lines of people are moving debris from where cries for help can be heard under the rubble. Cell phones and video cameras record what is happening.

The emergency services complete initial disaster assessments and request the assistance of neighboring countries and the international community. Search and Rescue teams across the globe monitor the situation and get ready to deploy for a two-weeks life-saving mission. Among those, some 56 international teams from 46 countries have been classified by the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group – INSARAG – a group that since the 1990s develops guidance in the field of urban search and rescue.

Once airlifted into the affected country and dispatched to the operational theater, the INSARAG teams, using sophisticated search devices such as acoustic listening devices, crawler robots, thermal imagers and – most importantly – trained dogs, start to locate survivors buried deep in the rubble. Once located, survivors are extracted with specialized equipment such as hydraulic cutter rescue tools, chain saws and air lifting bags. The INSARAG teams bring with them all this equipment needed to cut through and lift debris of even the largest buildings.

Following the INSARAG International Guidelines, the Urban Search and Rescue (UASR) team leaders come together every day to report and receive their tasks at the USAR Coordination Cell (UCC). The UCC is part of the wider On-Site Operations Coordination Center (OSOCC) system where teams from the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) – the UN rapid response surge mechanism managed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – are coordinating the overall response in close synchronization with the government and the Humanitarian Coordinator.

Most INSARAG teams will demobilize within 10 days and leave the country when the Government declares the end of the USAR phase. Some teams will stay to provide support “beyond the rubble”, responding toadditional humanitarian assistance needs.

When hundreds of Search and Rescue teams are at work in large-scale disasters, efficient and effective use of the resources can only be achieved through enhanced coordination, fast decision making, and standards applied across responders.

This is the work of INSARAG. This growing network, created and maintained by OCHA as Secretariat, includes over 90 Member States and organizations dedicated to lifesaving USAR operations. This community of practices and network was established in 1991 to facilitate the development of international standards and coordination amongst the USAR teams who make themselves available for deployment to countries experiencing devastating events of structural collapse such as earthquakes.  

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In 2002, the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 57/150 on ‘Strengthening the effectiveness and coordination of international urban search and rescue assistance’ recognized and endorsed the INSARAG Guidelines and Methodology. OCHA is now the custodian of the internationally recognized INSARAG guidelines and – working alongside these Guidelines – are the INSARAG External Classification (IEC) and INSARAG External Reclassification (IER) system.

The INSARAG community acknowledges the importance of providing rapid professional USAR support during disasters which result in structural collapse. In 2005 it developed two voluntary, independent, peer review processes in order to ensure that international USAR teams are able to: mobilize rapidly; be self-sufficient; perform lifesaving operations professionally and safely; coordinate its activities based on the priorities established by the National Emergency Management Authority; coordinates its efforts with other international responders and augments national resources and finally, adopt internationally accepted coordination mechanisms established on-site.

Through thematic working groups, training and exercise, this network works to build the capacities of Search and Rescue teams worldwide. The success of the USAR international classification system has spilled over with its classification concept adapted to the Emergency Medical Teams by the World Health Organization. At the regional level, INSARAG networks have been created with their own preparedness and response strategies to reflect the regional priorities.

In 2019, the concept of Classification has been further adapted to allow for a wider dissemination of the INSARAG standards through the creation of – country-led – national USAR accreditation systems.

30 years after its creation in Europe, the INSARAG network has now become a global structure, advising and building the capacities of emergencies services worldwide.

In 2020, OCHA celebrates the 30 years of INSARAG and – since its first meeting in Austria in 1990 – OCHA’s Response Support Branch now coordinates over INSARAG 25 events yearly from International External Classifications or Reclassifications to large scales command post exercise to technical workshop and specialized courses for USAR team members. Those events are essential for the promotion and strengthening of international coordination to sudden-onset disasters and go beyond Search and Rescue activities. From local communities of first responders (First Responder Course), to advanced Information Management Training for Reporting Officers in USAR teams, to USAR Coordination (UC) courses, to Mentor and Classifiers courses, the network brings together communities of experts and builds bridges across emergency specialists worldwide. This approach has proven to be successful in fostering bilateral or trilateral technical cooperation. Countless of inter-governmental support projects are now underway within the INSARAG community. In October of this year, the INSARAG community will gather in Warsaw, Poland for its global meeting. There, OCHA with over 400 experts in the field of earthquake response and Urban Search and Rescue, will take stock of the latest developments in the humanitarian system and endorse a new and updated version of the INSARAG guidelines. The INSARAG global meeting – held every five years – ensures that international standards applied to search and rescue activities remain as high as possible by including the latest best practices and technologies in the field. This is done with one single objective in mind: saving as many lives as humanly possible.

* Lucien Jaggi, works at the Emergency Response Section, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
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