Only four countries in the region have the USAR certification to participate in search and rescue operations at the international level.
The United Nations (UN) awarded the USAR COL1 certification to a team of 120 rescue experts from the Colombian Armed Forces after an earthquake simulation. The country fulfilled the requirements established for Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams to coordinate responses to earthquakes at the international level. Colombia also joined the elite group of nations trained in aid operations.
“I am honored to introduce the Colombian USAR Team as a member of the elite USAR group, which can deploy any time to help not only neighboring countries but also any country around the world affected by some emergency,” Gintare Eidimtaite, delegate of the UN International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), said at the award ceremony. “The classifiers evaluated the team with a 140 [point] checklist.”
Two years of planning, skills building, training, reviewing documents, personnel selection, and equipment acquisition occurred before the team reached its goal and obtained the USAR COL1. The Unit for Disaster Risk Management of Colombia (UNGRD, in Spanish) integrated its work in operations, logistics, medical, telecommunications, and disaster-relief coordination, with the certification process. Members of the Colombian National Army, Navy, Police, and Air Force, as well as the District Institute for Risk Management and Climate Change, Bogota Firefighters, and the Colombian Red Cross make up UNGRD.
“[This is] the most important certification that exists for search and rescue teams in collapsed structures, which comply with all the protocols to save lives,” Carlos Iván Márquez Pérez, director of UNGRD, said at the ceremony. “Colombia became the fourth country in Latin America to obtain the certification.”
Simulation: trial by fire
The Colombian Armed Forces faced major challenges when they assisted during the recent earthquakes in Peru, Chile, and Mexico. These experiences sped up the certification process, whose greatest test was an earthquake simulation.
UNGRD sounded the alarms in Bogota on February 9, 2018. News of an earthquake in Peru with severe consequences required immediate action. The simulation was set in motion allowing INSARAG to determine whether to award the certification.
For the evaluation and subsequent classification of the Colombian team, the UN designated its delegates and leaders of search and rescue teams from the United States, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. Observers from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico also participated.
The town of Armenia in the Colombian Andes served as a backdrop and represented Peru during the exercise. The USAR Colombia team operated onsite for three days while the qualification panel observed the mission step by step. Team members carried out the simulated rescue of victims, dead and alive, in a collapsed building.
Capacity and effectiveness in mobilizing
Once the simulation began, each of the entities and members of the elite search and rescue group started their work. The Colombian Air Force (FAC, in Spanish) activated their mobility and transport system for the personnel and material necessary to respond to the earthquake.
“We transported 75 people and a total of two [tons] of cargo from the CATAM base [Colombian Air Force Military Transportation Air Command, in Spanish] to the affected area,” FAC Lieutenant Colonel John Jairo Báez, head of the National Center for Personnel Recovery, told Diálogo. “The certifying body that scrutinized our operation was on the plane.”
Team members carried out the procedures to receive cargo and personnel, coordinated with Colombia Migration, and checked dangerous items, accordingly and in a timely fashion. They even simulated formalities for permission to land on runways of the Peruvian airport, since every aspect was open to scrutiny. Transport and mobility of the personnel and rescue equipment had to be effective.
“The country may have trained and skilled personnel, but if it doesn’t have the [capacity] to mobilize them to the emergency location, the process will be unsuccessful,” Lt. Col. Baez said. “FAC is an important tool because we ensure the mobility of all the personnel and equipment to the country that requires it. In our case, we were able to standardize protocols to transport personnel and cargo. We combined our experience with the guidelines and requirements of the UN.”
Contribution of the engineers battalion
INSARAG has three certification levels: light, medium, and heavy. Only a few countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom, have reached the third category. These countries have the highest capacity for transport, installation on location, and autonomy to keep rescue personnel in place over a long period of time, among other factors.
The Colombian USAR team was certified at the medium level. Its area of operations will include the Caribbean countries, South America, Central America, and, if required, countries of other continents.
“The Colombian National Army was decisive in obtaining the qualification,” Army Lieutenant Colonel Gerson Yohanny Rincón, risk management officer of the Engineers Command, told Diálogo. “We have an elite unit with experience in emergency reduction, forest fire control, aquatic rescue search, rescue in collapsed structures, search in confined structures, extinguishing fires, and mitigation work.”
The Military Engineers Command is a specialized unit with 500 personnel—including officers, noncommissioned officers, and soldiers—at the ready around the clock for immediate response and necessary assistance during disasters. Colombia is the second South American country to join the global USAR teams—Chile obtained its certification in November 2017.