Fire Corps: The Difficulty of Passing Along Rescue Techniques
San Lian Shenghuo Zhoukan, June 30, 2008 pp. 98 – 99
“In most Chinese provinces, earthquake rescue teams are located in the fire corps.” Political commissar Zhong Jian of the Sichuan Province Fire Corps 四川消防总队政委仲健 says, “We have expert rescue personnel and equipment, therefore the most difficult rescue missions are given to the fire departments.” In this earthquake, 14,434 officers and men of fire corps from throughout China were involved. From the ruins 8335 people were taken of whom 1721 survived. Of these the Sichuan fire departments took 6319 people, of whom 1300 survived. Li Guohui, a senior engineer of the Sichuan Province Fire Corps said that fire fighting personnel in China are nearly all active duty military. Fire fighting and rescue techniques depend greatly on the accumulation of knowledge. The Fire Corps needs to devote much thought to how to make up for the losses in the fighting strength of th Fire Corps as its members return to civilian life or transfer to some other specialty.
An hour after the earthquake, the Sichuan Fire Corps learned where the earthquake epicenter was and sent the first special team of about 60 to Wenchuan county. Zhong Jian looked at the map and tried to contact fire units or fire brigades in nine area but was unable to reach any along a corridor running several hundred kilometers in length from the southwest to the northeast. “Then we realized that these regions were in bad shape.”
As disaster information came in from one place after another, Zhong Jian directed troops to go to one or another disaster area. “We realized that the disaster was much greater than we had thought, and that although this was the largest fire corps deployment in history, it was still utterly inadequate.
We sent in all 4500 rescue troops of the Fire Corps and reached the limit of troops we could deploy.”
The 800 troops of the Chengdu branch of the Fire Corps were all deployed to Dujiangyan. The number of disaster areas that needed help reached 150. “Our troop strength was inadequate, so we had to choose areas where there were large concentrations of people such as schools and hospitals for our deployments. This was a serious decision, but we had no alternative.” Among the 150 areas needing disaster rescue assistance, only 76 were chosen for deployment of rescue troops. “Since the Fire Corps has special equipment and techniques, on some very difficult missions only the Fire Corps can take the assignment. In this widespread earthquake disaster, our troops were simply overwhelmed.”
“In Yingxiu Township, we only saved 41 people, but all of them were saved from deep within the ruins, from places where the specialized knowledge and equipment of the Fire Corps was essential. Rescuing an individuals took an average of three hours each, with some rescues lasting as long as two to three days. Faced with this large a rescue task, personnel without special training would be simply unable to accomplish it.”, said Xie Baiyang, the vice director of training for the Sichuan Fire Corps.
The earthquake trapped many people. When the earthquake hit, 13 tourists were caught on the funicular at Dujiangyan. Due to mountain slides, the supports at both ends of the cable way had loosened. Li Guohui lead firefighters to the road beneath the funicular. The road rose at a steep angle with the tourists trapped at different heights of between 30 and 60 meters. Li Guohui immediately devised a rescue plan. Over ten firefighters put on safety belts and began climbing the support at the middle of the cable way. Some of the troops pulled a rescue line. One team members crawled along the line to the cable car and attached a tourist at one of the lower cars to a device that would gradually lower them to the ground. The weight of the tourists themselves was used to lower them. This device could not be used for tourists on the higher cars, so they were tied to a rescue line and gradually lowered, with several troops holding onto the line. On the evening of the earthquake 13 tourists were rescued, 11 of them were Taiwan compatriots.
“This was an unusual rescue, most of them were done in the ruins.” said Li Guohui. In a building that has collapsed, one cannot move carelessly. People buried at a shallow layer of the ruins who can be rescued using simple tools. For people buried deep in ruins, special equipment and even more experience and special techniques.
Upon entering a disaster areas, the fire corps personnel need to evaluate the situation and be guided by local people to schools, hospitals and factories where people are concentrated. Then they need to search for signs of life. The simplest is to yell, and if people respond to determine their exact position. If nobody answers, than use search and rescue dogs and life sign detection equipment to look for survivors. Fiber optic snakes can be inserted into cracks in ruins to look for people. If a person is found but it is not clear if they are alive, then a radar life sign detector can be used to check for signs of life.
At the same time, another group does a study of all the ruins to find out the principal support points and to determine if there is loose soil in the vicinity. “Only after these survey results are obtained can a rescue plan be devised. If not, and a support point of the ruins were to be damaged, there could be another collapse which would not only harm survivors but endanger rescue personnel as well.”
People who are trapped in a shallow layer of the ruins can be rescued by removing the top layer of the wreckage. For a large building, a crane can be used or a special pneumatic drill, which uses air pressure to turn the concrete into small pieces that are convenient to remove. Once rebar is encountered, a special metal cutter is used. If the trapped person is buried relatively deeply, especially in the very difficult case of a high rise building, then a path into the ruins needs to be made.” Once a rescue path has been cut, rescue personnel crawl into it. “This is very dangerous. If an aftershock comes, it is all over for us.” Therefore while cutting the rescue path, the fire corps personnel need to pay close attention to the support points of the ruins. Since the limbs of victims are often caught by the ruins, rescuers sometimes need to use hydraulic or pneumatic equipment to lift a part of the ruins.
“Our rescue philosophy has changed considerably over time. Formerly we focused entirely on saving lives and on getting victims out as quickly as possible, and so paid little attention to saving the limbs of the victims. Now that we have many kinds of advanced equipment, we have been able to make a big change in our approach. Working together with the provincial health department, provincial rescue center, and the rescue centers of each city and prefecture, we have been giving medical and nursing training to our front line rescue workers and giving more thought to the various needs of disaster victims. For example, during the rescue process we constantly spray the ruins with water so that small dust particles will not hurt people trapped in the ruins. We also give special attention to the health of the limbs of the victims, and give the victims psychological counseling during the rescue process. During this very long and difficult process, we need to encourage the trapped person to hold out.”, said Li Guohui.
“Other armies have the philosophy “train for a thousand days to be ready for one moment” but for us, we “train for a thousand days to fight a thousand days”. Zhong Jian said that Fire Corps troops are on the battlefield almost every day. With the development of fire rescue work, new equipment and new techniques are being adopted and rescue concepts are developing constantly. An important rescue concept is “integration of people and equipment”. The biggest issue after getting a great deal of advanced equipment is how to use it most effectively. Xie Bai says, there are 4000 – 7000 items of equipment that a special rescue team has. All this equipment is useless if the team members haven’t experience in how to use it. Simple memorization doesn’t work. It takes five to ten years to train a top rate special rescue team member.
“Fire rescue and even more special rescue is not simply a matter of being in good physical condition. A rescue team member has to have relevant knowledge of buildings, physics and the ability to respond in an emergency. Firefighting is itself a multidisciplinary science.” says Li Guohui.
Therefore there are great demands placed on developing the rescue ability of firefighters. In rescue efforts during this earthquake, the specialized rescue workers of the fire corps played a major role.”
In developed countries, firefighters are one per thousand of the population. In developing countries, this number is between two and five per ten thousand. In China the average level is 0.9 per ten thousand. Considering differences in urbanization, the level in Chinese cities is only two per ten thousand, at the very bottom of the range for developing countries. In addition to the inadequate numbers, is the problem that retaining trained personnel is difficult. In China, firefighters are active duty military assigned to public security, in addition to some firefighters who work for government, enterprises and some volunteers. The biggest difference between Chinese and foreign firefighters is the the average length of service of specialized firefighting personnel is different.
In China, a firefighter gets three months of basic military training followed by six months of training about the area of assignment and firefighting equipment as well as technical training. Then they are assigned to firefighting teams as assistants. During this period they accumulate experience with emergency response, equipment and firefighting techniques. At the end of the second year, some members return to civilian life, transfer to military schools to work at becoming an officer. Yet there are not many officer positions, especially at the higher ranks. Therefore after the second year, many firefighters gradually return to civilian life. Some join government or enterprise firefighting units and greatly strengthen civilian firefighting capacity. All this is a serious loss to the specialized firefighting techniques and experience to the public security fire rescue teams. The transfer of skilled personnel affects fire rescue.
Xie Baiyang said, in this rescue process, the young firefighters showed great dedication. They all ran to their task. In the early stages they used up much of their physical strength and so their energy level declined rapidly. The more experienced firefighters better knew how to husband their strength.
“During 9/11, U.S. firefighters climbed buildings in an unhurried manner, not because they were not in a hurry but because they know, that climbing will get harder and harder and they will need to conserve their strength. This is the way a mature firefighter behaves. Therefore, most foreign firefighters are between the age of 30 to 45.” In this situation, half of the fire corps troops were non-commissioned officers. Li Guohui said, “If all the Fire Corps troops had been non-commissioned officers, the troops would have had much greater fighting strength”. After the earthquake, the firefighting teams accomplished great things in rescue work. The big question facing them after the earthquake is how to retain the valuable skills and experience that they learned.”
“As a commander, if I were to say what I regret most about this earthquake, it is that we didn’t have more equipment and more skilled non-commissioned officers. If had, we could have saved even more people.” said Zhong Jian.
http://www.sina.com.cn 2008年06月26日11:46 三联生活周刊
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