Getting ready: Japan's Search and Rescue Team

Urban search and rescue operations save people’s lives in the aftermath of large scale natural disasters such as earthquakes. Quick, effective and well coordinated deployment and operations by international search and rescue teams with expert skills and technology, especially within the initial 72 hours, are vital.

OCHA is the secretariat of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), which ensures that international teams work to agreed standards. The UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) system, also managed by OCHA, supports governments of affected countries to coordinate incoming international search and rescue teams.

Japan is a member of both UNDAC and INSARAG, and is considered a significant contributor to urban search and rescue. The country is working to ensure its disaster relief teams have the capacity to help other nations in the event of a disaster. In November, Masaki Watabe, Head of OCHA Japan Office, attended a three day annual training exercise organised by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

In this exercise a huge earthquake scenario in a fictitious country was used. Members of the Japan Disaster Relief (JDR) Search and Rescue Team, along with their rescue dogs, travelled to a disaster training facility in Hyogo Prefecture to conduct an initial search and rescue operation in response to the earthquake. The JDR Team is a hybrid team of police, firemen, coast guards, structural engineers, logisticians and medical professionals working with local authorities across Japan.

The first key task of the JDR team was to set up a Reception and Departure Centre (RDC) at the airport to receive international teams and to establish the On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) which is where the UNDAC team is based. The JDR team then tested their search and rescue skills, using their dogs to locate survivors in the purpose built concrete structures. Leadership, communication and teamwork skills were also tested.

Akira Nakamura, who heads the JDR Team secretariat hosted by JICA, said “in 2010, the Japanese team was certified as a ‘heavy’ team by INSARAG, which means that we are capable of carrying out the most difficult search and rescue operations. Maintaining this capacity is essential.”

“Building a closer partnership with OCHA, including through UNDAC and INSARAG, is very important for Japan, which experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake recently” said Yutaka Aoki, Director of the Humanitarian Assistance and Emergency Relief Division of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, who also attended the exercise.

Kenji Nishijima, who works with the Hyogo Prefectural Government and played the role of a Local Emergency Management Authority (LEMA) official in the exercise, said “local authorities are often the first responders, and we also need to learn how to better interact with international relief actors, by working closely with organisations such as OCHA”. These are lessons the Hyogo Prefecture Government knows only too well, based on its own experience gained through the earthquake that hit Kobe almost 18 years ago.

The OCHA office in Kobe works closely with JICA to promote disaster relief and humanitarian aid inside Japan and as part of Japan’s international assistance, such as organising a joint public seminar on international humanitarian action earlier this year. OCHA Kobe also coordinates closely with JICA Kansai International Centre, also located in Kobe, which implements several training courses in disaster management for developing countries.

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