Local-Global: The science and humanity of earthquakes and SAR

We have all been watching events in Haiti and have been overwhelmed by the death and destruction we have seen in the news casts.

Along with reporting what is going on the world media have played an important role in publicizing legitimate organizations that are trying to save the people of Haiti.

But one thing struck me last night as I was watching CNN, I have not seen any stories about the search and rescue teams or about the techniques and equipment used to save lives. (Granted, I am in Brazil and don’t get all the same news channels Americans get, but I try to keep up.)

And when I say stories about the teams, I mean more than the “A team from Fairfax County, Virginia pulled out three survivors today,” kind of story.

  • Who are these people?
  • Where do they come from?
  • Why did they volunteer to do this?

As I watched CNN last night, the reporter mentioned the dog search teams and the seismic sensor team used to find survivors. (More on this in a bit.) The reporter focused on how there might be a survivor in the wreckage of a particular building. That would have been a great opportunity to explain to the viewers the range of human, animal and scientific efforts being used to save lives.

That seismic equipment is pretty cool. I first saw it in use in Mexico City in 1985. The gear was developed to find trapped miners. The Mexico quake was the first time it was ever used in an urban natural disaster setting.

Reporters in Haiti have also mentioned fiber optic cameras that have been used to probe into the recesses of the collapsed buildings.

Once again, this technology was developed by the US Bureau of Mines for — you guessed it — saving miners. And — once again you guessed it — it was first used in an urban disaster in Mexico City. Today the camera and lights are hair thin. Back then “small” was the size of a tennis ball.

Mexico was also the first time dog search teams were used in this kind of situation.

And I know this because I worked with each of these teams while we tried to rescue people from the rubble in that earthquake. And none of these teams came from major metropolitan areas. The seismic and camera teams came from West Virginia and rural Pennsylvania. (Where the mines are.)

At the time, no one was sure if any of this stuff would work in such a disaster zone. The technicians and dog handlers had to try different things to and ways until they got it right. And the benefits were many more lives saved.

Maybe because of the novelty of the use of this equipment, there were stories as the rescue efforts were winding down in Mexico. By day 6 each of the main US networks had done a story about either the dog teams or the seismic and camera teams.

The technology has progressed a lot in 25 years. But one thing remains constant: each member of the rescue teams, technicians and dog handlers has a normal life.

Another thing is clear: the people who developed and fine tune the seismic sensors and cameras are in the States working away with little recognition of their efforts. They know what they did saved lives. But how many other people know?

How about some stories from the States about the people who train the dogs? Who designed and built the sensors or underground cameras? And of course, about those who use the equipment?

To the journalists in the home towns of the rescue teams:

  • Where is the curiosity about WHO these people are?
  • Where is the curiosity about WHAT goes into training these people?
  • Where is the curiosity about WHERE they got their training and WHERE they have gone before?
  • Where is the curiosity about WHEN they and the local, state or national government got interested in setting up an SAR team and how to properly equip it?
  • Where is the curiosity about HOW the rescuers are doing their jobs?
  • Where is the curiosity about WHY they have volunteered for such dangerous work? And WHY a local government set up a special SAR team?

And then there is the science of an earthquake.

I was struck to see that Michigan Tech — about as far away from any fault line and Haiti as one can get — released a simple article

The piece provided simple and concise explanations about the science of an earthquake.

Journalists don’t have to travel to Haiti to report on what happened or how people are being saved. A few phone calls and a Google search can get info on the equipment used. (In less than 2 seconds I found three or four companies that provide the seismic sensors to FEMA, Bureau of Mines and other SAR teams.)

A few phone calls to a local university or even community college can get an expert to talk about what happens in an earthquake and why the ones that occurred last week were so deadly. (Besides the epicenter being at a major population center the first two quakes were shallow. Look it up yourself as to why that is important information.)

First posted at the SPJ International Journalism blog.



Filed under International News Coverage, Story Ideas

3 responses to “Local-Global: The science and humanity of earthquakes and SAR

  1. Steve Hilts

    Well here is a little bit of information. I am a dog handler for CA Task Force 3 located in Menlo Park Ca. I am a civilian and hold down a full time job as a sales person. At my expense I got a puppy and trained her for 2 years until we passed the FEMA test which allowed me to be one of the K9 Search teams. My Dog, Daisy is now eight years old. We will have another 3 years then she will retire as she will most likely be to old. We must recertify every three years to show we still have the skill set necessary to do our job. There are a total of a little over 200 such teams nation wide. Most of the dog handlers I know train with each other at least once a week and sometimes more. All of the the Task Forces have mandatory training that we all must go to to remain deployable.
    The 28 task force teams in the United States are is made up of firefighters and civilians.
    So to recap. I train every weekend with the dog and attend monthly specific training with my task force teammates in such areas as GPS, Haz Mat, Confined Space, and Rope Rescue to name a few. We are like a fire extinguisher, you want us around but if we are used it means something bad has happened. We all love it and will be ready to respond to help save lives.

    • kubiske

      And you make my point for me.

      Thank you for your work.

      I only spent 9 days with the SAR teams in Mexico but their dedication was a real inspiration.

      Mind if I share your note with some of my journo buddies?

  2. Pingback: Local-Global: Fairfax County Rescue Alerted for Nepal Earthquake Help | Journalism, Journalists and the World

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