The building above is the old Travis House apartment building. Decades ago it was the Austin YWCA. A few years back I think it was some kind of halfway house. Now it's abandoned, condemned, all windows boarded up. If you wander around inside, you'll find it full of debris, broken glass, standing water, and a completely destroyed industrial kitchen.
No power, thus no AC. No light, not even from the windows, since they're boarded up.
Nowadays it's owned by the Austin Fire Department, which made it an ideal place for us to do an urban search and rescue exercise on Saturday. With full gear, fake victims inside, a complete simulation.
The first exercise, a tour organized and guided by the instructors, I got assigned to a fire team, which basically meant I would go in first, carrying an 18 pound fire extinguisher with one hand and a flashlight in the other, looking for smoldering hotspots to put them out before the search teams could come through looking for victims and hazards. After we got our briefing, I took off my overloaded 24-hour pack and set it on the ground and the instructor laughed and said "Oh no...you'll need that pack to survive".
So we did a room-to-room search, humping fire extinguisher, full pack, dust mask, googles, helmet with headlamp, and flashlight. Three teams searched three floors. By the time we came out, we looked like we'd taken a shower in our clothes, completely drenched in sweat.
The second exercise, the instructors basically picked a student at random and said "You're the incident commander...there's been a tornado and victims are trapped inside. You need to search the three basement levels. Organize and make it happen." And then they stood back and watched. And timed us.
Basement levels? Ulp.
I've never done any training that felt so real. I got assigned to a search team to search the second underground level, and as soon as we headed down the basement stairs, we enountered the fog machine that they'd added to make it interesting.
Pitch black, in fog, in an industrial basement with no map, with only the "left hand rule" or "right hand rule" to keep you on course without getting lost in the dark. Almost immediately my partner and I found a baby in a broken elevator. And this is where you discover how training and reality can get all tangled up in your head when you're disoriented and stressed and exhausted. We had been told that search teams do not pull out non-ambulatory victims, they just note where they are and report back later so that a rescue team can go in. But it was a baby. And that seemed weird. We weren't sure what to do. But we noted her, started to move on, and the instructor had to break character to tell us, "If it's a baby or small child, you always pull them out immediately." Common sense, right? Well, a lot of things that are common sense in a dark smokey basement are actually dangerous, and we had fallen back on our training, but our training was incomplete.
So we go back, we grab the baby, we run back upstairs and out of the building to take the infant to triage, and the first thing the medic says is "Is she breathing?"
Fuck. We hadn't even checked. The panic of "get the baby out" made us forget all the basic rules of first aid. We hadn't checked airways, we hadn't checked for signs of injury, we hadn't done anything but grab the baby and run for it. If it had been a real baby, we might have killed it.
We blathered some lame excuse about "unresponsive" and handed it off and headed back in.
More screwups followed later. Coming out after a search and reporting an unconscious victim under debris, but in our quest to get water while we debriefed, we forgot to report the victim to the one person who was responsible for sending a rescue team in. So the victim sat under debris for an extra 20 minutes until the mistake was discovered.
Don't get me wrong. All in all we did a fantastic job. My fellow trainees were a great assortment of professionals and volunteers, all of whom took their training very seriously. But it made me think of a recent discussion over at Mr. Clio's bemoaning the fact that only trained personnel are being allowed to search for bodies in New Orleans. The thing is, there is a lot to know to be able to do this stuff in a safe and effective manner, and vigilante rescue heroes can often make a bad situation worse.
That being said, the training for Urban Search and Rescue is not especially time consuming, and although it requires a reasonable amount of physical fitness, it's not something that needs a Navy SEAL attitude or physique. I'm certainly not triathlete material.
I chatted with the instructor Saturday about my upcoming move to New Orleans, and bemoaning the fact that there doesn't seem to be any sort of CERT organization there or much in the way of volunteer SAR teams, and he strongly encouraged me that with a little effort and research and recruiting, I could start one myself. We would need to make some connections with local authorities, but we could form a private, volunteer, non-government-affiliated 501(c)3 Search and Rescue outfit with a minimum of five people willing to do the training. We then charter ourselves through the organization that ran the Saturday training, and we become an official search and rescue resource which can be activated during emergencies.
Those of you bemoaning the fact that "only trained professionals need apply", and those of you looking for volunteer opportunities for the next storm, here's an opportunity to become one of those trained professionals on a part time volunteer basis.
When I get to town, I'm going to look into doing this. I'll be looking for volunteers to help. Folks with military, police, fire, or EMS background are especially valuable, but it's not required. Myself, I'm just a regular shmoe who went through some training.
This would be a grass roots effort. Based locally, self-funded, nationally chartered, and hopefully with at least some sort of official buy-in from a local authority. I might hit up Stacy Head with the initial idea since she seems to be the one who gets things done in that town.
Who's with me?