A lot of search and rescue situations in Alaska involve someone missing or injured in the wilderness. But in the case of an earthquake or avalanche, first responders need to be equally prepared to search for or treat someone in a collapsed building.
An exercise held recently in Juneau provided that training for emergency workers from around the state. And they learned from a Washington group that has unique expertise and experience in responding to these kinds of disasters.
Retired physician assistant Iola Young has rolled out an air mattress and a sleeping bag next to a large shipping container. She’s brought a good book.
“And breakfast and lunch, and they provided me with earplugs and safety glasses,” says Young. “I’m set.”
She and a dummy are role-playing as victims of a building collapse.
“My friend here is unconscious and slowly dying. And needs help. Just needs help. That’s all that I know,” Young laughs.
There are three shipping containers arranged to represent the ceiling and a few walls of the damaged building Young is trapped in, like an open-sided giant dollhouse without any furniture.
But rescuers have discovered the building’s entrance is damaged. Before they can safely enter, they need to fabricate wood shoring on the spot.
This exercise is part of urban search and rescue training. First responders from around the state are learning how to locate and treat victims in an urban environment that’s been wrecked by a massive earthquake, a major avalanche, or a mudslide like the one that killed three people in Sitka in 2015.
The teachers of the course have unfortunate expertise in this subject. They responded to the 2014 Oso mudslide in Washington state that killed 43 people and wrecked dozens of homes. It was the deadliest mudslide of its kind in U.S. history.
“If you could imagine if somebody just took a bunch of mud and trees and houses and put them in a blender, then dumped it out on the ground. That’s really what it was like,” said Master Sgt. Chris Martin of the Washington National Guard‘s 10th Homeland Response Force. “There was hardly any structure left. The houses were pancaked.”
Martin’s team specializes in searching confined spaces in collapsed buildings or wide-area searches, like for an avalanche or a mudslide like the Oso disaster.
“We drove across the state to the collapse site. We worked on the pile for 10 days straight,” Martin said. “By that time, it was a recovery operation and we were helping extract remains from the slide.”
Even though he’s based in Washington, Martin said his team could be asked to help if a disaster happened in Alaska, working alongside local responders.
Searching for people inside collapsed buildings is very different from searching for people lost in the woods. It requires different tools and different skills — even for dogs.
“In a building, your scent is all over the place, spilling out,” said Geoff Larson of SEADOGS, or Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search.
Larson and his dog Tango are practicing looking for victims in a dark, largely-vacant building. He said the wind may carry the scent in an ever-widening, cone-shaped path outdoors. But it’s different inside a building.
“Your scent is probably going to go up from you, because you’re 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s going to go up and hit the ceiling and on a cold wall. It’ll sink, or it might go up across a room, and the dog will come in,” Larson said.
There are also hazards in damaged buildings that the dogs aren’t used to outside. Things like hazardous materials, additional structural collapses, gas leaks or live electrical wires.
Young ends up hanging out in her sleeping bag next to the simulated building collapse for several hours.
Rescuers are drilling and jackhammering their way through a six-inch thick, reinforced concrete slab that is in their way. It’s grueling, punishing, time-consuming work.
In addition to practicing using power tools to extract victims from the building, the first responders also practicing talking to victims, getting important information about their health and situation, and keeping them calm.
“Can you touch him? Is he stuck under something?” asks Capital City Fire/Rescue’s Meghan Desloover, a rescue team leader for the exercise.
“He’s not stuck under anything,” Young answers. “He feels cold.”
“Do you know who he is?” Desloover asks.
“No, I don’t know,” Young responds.
Desloover later reassures Young that help is on the way. It just may take a while.