Interview with Ambassador Toni Frisch of the Swiss Confederation, Chairman of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG)

Q: Mr Ambassador, you are Chairman of ISARAG. What is it about?
The International Search and Rescue Advisory Group(INSARAG) was created three years after the devastating Armenian Earthquake of 1988 in Spitak that tragically took the lives of 25,000 people; we noted in that response that international rescue teams had been very uncoordinated; Many teams were rushing in ill prepared, without proper equipment and means, and instead of offering help, they became a burden to the affected country.
At the inaugural meeting in December of 1991, in Beuggen, Germany, with representatives from 15 countries and 7 organisations, we agreed on taking a decisive step towards improving the coordination of international rescue operations after earthquakes…we knew that this will be a major challenge and that it will take time to achieve the goal. Now, after 20 years I feel confident to say that we managed to achieve our goal.
Today INSARAG is a global network of more than 80 countries and organizations focusing on urban search and rescue (USAR) related issues. Members are from both earthquake-prone and responding countries spanning the entire globe covering three regions, namely, the Americas, in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, in Asia and the Pacific- consisting of both disaster prone countries and assisting countries. They adopt common guidelines and methodologies, learning from each other in training and exercises, and above all, ready to respond as one big global INSARAG family with one main objective: to save lives.
Q: What are some of the notable achievements of INSARAG?
The achievements of INSARAG over the years are manifold with the ultimate goal to better respond efficiently to save lives; and I reiterate that INSARAG brought about concrete and tangible support by responding to all the major earthquakes that have occurred in the last 2 decades, bringing relief to the affected victims, their loved ones, and supporting the national authorities and local responders – alleviating human suffering.
1. Recognised by the United Nations as a Strong Like-Minded Global Network Operating Under a Common Operating Platform – the INSARAG Guidelines INSARAG’s leading role and methodology have been recognized in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 57/150 on « Strengthening the Effectiveness and Coordination of International Urban Search and Rescue Assistance. » At its core, this resolution stresses the need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of international urban search and rescue assistance to save more human lives. It also urges States to ensure that the international urban search and rescue teams are deployed and operate in accordance with internationally developed standards. It also endorses the INSARAG Guidelines that constitute another grand achievement of INSARAG over the last 20 years.
Today, the INSARAG Guidelines and Methodology are used all over the world, not only at the international level, but also at the national level. The INSARAG Guidelines remains a globally accepted standard reference by which all urban search and rescue teams adopt, and Many countries have also included the Guidelines into their national disaster response plans and training; regularly putting into practice and testing these plans during national and international level exercises. It has also been translated to several languages around the world.
2. The Unanimous Adoption of the « INSARAG Hyogo Declaration » on the 16 September 2010, during the INSARAG Global Meeting in Kobe, Japan – A Step Closer Towards Greater Improvement in Disaster Preparedness and Response at All Levels
Between 14-16 September 2010 the first global meeting of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) took place in Kobe, Japan. The meeting was hosted by the Government of Japan and co-organized by OCHA in its capacity as the INSARAG Secretariat which is located in the Field Coordination Support Section in the Emergency Services Branch. More than 200 delegates from approximately 70 countries and 8 international organizations participated in discussions on issues such capacity building in disaster prone countries, cooperation during emergency operations and best practices, transition from search and rescue to humanitarian relief operations and strengthening of collaboration with various humanitarian relief organizations, and regional organisations.
After much deliberation and discussions, the meeting unanimously adopted a declaration with recommendations on recognition and strengthening of international urban search and rescue operational standards. The crux of the INSARAG Hyogo Declaration on « Recognition and strengthening of international USAR operational standards » is intended to encourage disaster-affected countries to call upon the help of INSARAG teams for assistance and support. Countries will also be asked to offer priority access to these teams as they are well equipped to make a real difference in the early life-saving search and rescue phase of an earthquake or other collapsed structure disasters.
3.INSARAG External Classification – Gurantee of Effective and Professional International Assistance Nearly 20 countries have successfully undergone the INSARAG External Classification (IEC) since it started in 2005, while many others have shown keen interest or are preparing their USAR teams for upcoming IECs. This process has ever since facilitated capacity building and ensured minimum standards and matching capabilities to needs and priorities. To this very day it remains a truly unique process that establishes verifiable operational standards and a humanitarian example of how independent peer review can be a great added value in response preparedness and at the times of response.
In a world in which disaster response is becoming more complex, INSARAG has provided a commendable model to the rest of the humanitarian community demonstrating how the IEC continues to provide a global level strategic approach to ensure that there are well qualified and professional teams all around the world in every region and specifically close enough to potential disaster prone areas, ready to respond at a moments notice, and ready to make a REAL Difference in the life saving phase of a disaster.
4. Developing Common Guidelines for Building Up National USAR Capacity
To advance our system further, we also considered how to assist developing countries create a USAR capacity to meet these standards nationally. We should keep in mind that this is a great capacity building tool giving the opportunity to learn from each others’ experiences. Since we all know that the immediate responders in a disaster will be family members, neighbours, and the local responders, it is only prudent that they are trained and equipped to handle the initial response. The newly developed national USAR guidelines aims to do that – acting as a lighthouse to guide national USAR teams towards meeting INSARAG Standards nationally.
5. United Nations Coordination Mechanisms – To Mobilize and Coordinate Effective and Principled Humanitarian Action
INSARAG has made a wider impact on how international humanitarian community engages in times of need, responding beyond geo-seismic disasters. It was the encouraging example of INSARAG that triggered the creation of United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) system and developed the methodology for the On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) and Reception/Departure Centre (RDC) that are indispensable coordination tools of OCHA and its partners in disaster response.
As recently illustrated at the response to the earthquake in Haiti, it was INSARAG who was on the ground first and started the roots of the coordination mechanism in the field which was then handed over to the UNDAC team. All this bears witness to the fact that throughout its existence, INSARAG has helped OCHA realize its mission to mobilize and coordinate effective and principled humanitarian action in partnership with national and international actors in order to alleviate human suffering.
6. Responding Beyond the Rubble – Transitioning From Rescue to Relief We have learned from our previous experiences that the USAR concept has evolved through the years. This has been most obvious at the recent earthquakes in Indonesia and Haiti. The international USAR teams increasingly have an expanded role in the response to earthquakes. They do not only focus on search and rescue, although this remains the primary pillar of INSARAG, but also on a more comprehensive level of humanitarian assistance. There are now teams that can provide other types of humanitarian assistance at the transition from the live saving phase to the relief phase of an emergency. By this way, they can value add to the work of the clusters and this translates to more help for the affected population. This makes the added value of USAR teams even more important than before.
Q: Rescuers who come from abroad often belong to the civil defence. Where is the line? Do you want to work closer with local civil defence organizations or create a special group of « professional rescuers »?
Both national and international responders play crucial roles in the aftermath of a major disaster, each bring unique skill-sets and know how to a disaster. I have mentioned this earlier, while the national or local responders, with their local knowledge, language, dialect and cultural awareness, and being the first on the scene, (while insisting that they must be sufficiently trained and equipped to handle the initial aftermath of a disaster), their main role will be rescuing visible victims from dangerous structures, and mitigating and isolating initial hazards and hazardous materials. They provide crucial first-aid to injured victims, and can already start identifying the complex scale of the disaster; which collapse area requires the intervention of international expertise.
When the INSARAG international USAR teams arrive, they come with several hundred tonnes of high-tech equipment to break through thick reinforced concrete, they come with sophisticated and sensitive acoustic, seismic and optical fiberscope cameras, also highly trained search dogs; they can establish modern field hospitals to perform surgery even amputations, and can operate self sufficiently for 10 days round the clock, to locate live victims trapped under tonnes of debris, and get them out alive. In short, INSARAG teams bring the added muscle to reinforce and complement the work of national teams. One cannot do without the other, so in my opinion, it is very important that they have to work as one, complementing each other, within the INSARAG guidelines, adopting a common USAR language, that all can understand.
Q. You mentioned about the Expanding Roles of the INSARAG Global Family in Disaster Response, during the transition from USAR to Humanitarian Relief Operations, calling it « Beyond the Rubble » Can you elaborate more on this trend, you say?
We learned from our previous experiences that the USAR concept has evolved through the years. This has been most obvious at the recent earthquakes in Indonesia and Haiti. The international USAR teams increasingly have an expanded role in the response to earthquakes. They do not only focus on search and rescue, but also on a more comprehensive level of humanitarian assistance.
They also provide other types of humanitarian assistance at the transition from the live saving phase to the relief phase of an emergency. By this way, they are able to provide more and more help to the population affected. This is also a good example of its role not only at the immediate relief phase, but also at the preparedness. This makes the added value of USAR teams even more important than before.
Therefore, it is now time for INSARAG to integrate more with the broader humanitarian community and adapt its Guidelines and methodology accordingly. This is the way that the expanded capacity and assets of INSARAG « beyond the rubble » can effectively meet growing future needs. INSARAG should also explore how to support the clusters more so that the clusters can benefit from INSARAG’s methodology and even adapt this methodology to its system.
Q: Are you trying to also suggest change and better recognition in the humanitarian community through the INSARAG IEC initiative as an example?
Do you see other sectors of disaster response also going for a similar approach of peer classification, such as we see with INSARAG, organisations meeting global standards, and recognised as a qualified professional response.
The advantages for the classification initiative are 2 fold: In the near future, if those working in the rapid response phase are trained and classified accordingly, we will firstly know that these are professional teams that have met the global standards and second, the global community responding; and more importantly, the affected country, they will know what sort of assistance they are going to expect to receive: nothing short of a well equipped and professional, team that will make a difference! This creates a whole new positive image of the international response, and not least, the high quality of assistance the affected population will expect to receive. The effective humanitarian response from all stakeholders will translate into deeper confidence and greater donor interest to support the overall response needs.
I have shared the INSARAG IEC concept and mooted this idea at the Geneva Health Forum in April 2010. I said that these responding organizations have to be classified and I was pleasantly surprised at the positive response received. The ICRC, the UN Organisations came forward and was willing to further study this initiative.
As more organisations see the benefit of such a classification process, again I have to stress, a peer review amongst like-minded professionals, we can then form working groups from across these stakeholders and establish the perimeters, like what we did for INSARAG’s IEC. This would ultimately improve the quality of emergency relief operations in the future.
Q: What you are saying is, when disaster strikes, only the certified organizations will be allowed to go to the field?
Again I wish to reiterate as we have seen in recent response to the earthquakes of Padang and Haiti:
INSARAG Classified teams, also teams in the IEC queue, they have adopted the INSARAG guidelines, and they are applying the common methodology to ensure professional response, to ensure a well-coordinated response.
The bottom line is we encourage teams with the intent to assist affected countries to meet these standards and stand up for classification, if not, it would be rather time consuming during the disaster, to find out what sort of capacities a team is bringing to the response and worse of all, if we find out that these teams have arrived unprepared.
We hope to see professional teams on the ground, fully self sufficient, fully aware of the high standards expected of them, in assisting the affected country, and not become a burden instead. We have seen too many of such teams in disasters, coming unprepared, or ill equipped, and time and effort have to be spent to manage them instead.
Q: How are you going make your selection? Is it going to be only « European » humanitarian organizations or will you facilitate the entry of the developing world?
What about the developing countries that do not have the financial means to create these groups? Are you going to help them?
Classification is about self-reflection, about peer review, and examining critically and constructively, if a team meets the minimum acceptable standards set. It must be open to every responding organisation, under the purview of the respective area of specialisation.
Yes, it will not happen overnight, it took INSARAG 15 years, before countries say , come , see my team , examine my processes, and tell me if I have met the standards. There are mutual benefits, as members also learn from the best practices of other teams from across the world. But I believe, organisations must start by taking the first step.
INSARAG has just introduced the national USAR guidelines for national teams to start with. Relevant national or regional bodies can conduct the classification, this is the first step. It is important that these teams, that may never deploy overseas, be aware of common standards, and will operate in a similar framework when international teams arrive, and all operate under a common methodology.
Q: So this is your objective — plant a seed and watch it grow? Yes, absolutely! We have seen the benefits the INSARAG IEC process has already brought to the life saving phase of a major disaster i.e. earthquakes. It is rather timely for other organisations to learn about this initiative, and see how best a similar approach of classification can be implemented in their areas of specilisation, and in so doing, ensure only professional, consistent high quality, genuine life saving response is provided every time a major disaster strikes.