Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti - playing the USAR waiting game

Over the next few days, you are likely to be hearing about how vital relief aid is sitting at airports across the U.S. and other countries.  The news reporter will be wailing about how people are suffering and dying and how rescue teams are still sitting at airports, waiting to fly to Haiti.

Pundits and politicians will see these stories and feel the need to pontificate, using terms like "we can never allow this to happen again" and "I will make sure that the needed help arrives as soon as possible."

I have friends that are part of the USAR response to this disaster. As of this writing (14:00hrs MST on Sat. 1/16), they are still sitting at various airports, waiting for either aircraft or for space in country to set up their bases of operations. I can assure you no one is more frustrated than they are. I can assure you as well, that there is not much that they can do about it.

I have played this game, this cruel waiting while people are suffering. It sucks. One time, we waited at an airport for a full day, waiting for an airplane that never arrived. After sleeping on the apron of an airport overnight, we got the word that other arrangements had been made and our services weren't needed. Another time, we stood by for 36 hours while the needed logistical arrangements were made in preparation for our arrival. That one was hard to take, as we could see the need for our services on the television while we waited.

It was not until I arrived "in theatre" that I realized why we were held up and what the term "regional disaster" truly meant.

There are numerous things that must occur before the USAR teams can be deployed and put to work. I touched upon it in my last post, but this should tie it together. Until the following issues are resolved, these teams are not going to go to work.

1. Have transportation - To the area of operations; to the base of operations; to the work site. There is a little fudging on the last one, but the first two are vital.

2. Have Space - To set up a USAR task force Base of Operations (BOO)requires a large footprint. Space for the equipment, which usually fills up three semi-trailers and a box-truck; space for a command tent, a logistics tent, a medical tent, a communications tent and sleeping tents all take up room. That is for one Type I (Heavy) USAR team. Multiply that by the number of teams plus an Incident Support Team (IST) and now you are dealing with a very large footprint.

Not just any space will do. Preferably, you want a space that will hold as many of your resources as possible, so that security and logistical support are easier. You would like to have a place where the site is not impacted by the elements such as rain or wind. An empty field may be fine when it is dry, but add water and it becomes a swamp, bogging everything down to the point of being non-operational.

3. Have security - for both your people and your equipment. Each Type I team has 72 people that must be protected from looters or other people that may do them harm. The specialized equipment that each team carries is literally irreplaceable in this event. Either it is not available in Haiti or is already in use. The airport is currently so backlogged with relief supplies and personnel coming into the country, replacement equipment will not be available for some time.

4. Have logistical support - Food, water, sanitation. You don't have these three, people start getting sick. Food can be basic. MREs and bottled water will work just fine. The people that defend our country have been living off of these things for years at a time with no ill effect. Sanitation is vital, not only waste disposal, but washing facilities and garbage disposal. 5 gallon buckets and plastic bags will suffice for a short time, but after a while the bags start piling up unless you have a safe method to dispose of them.

Here is the funny thing. Three of the four items above fall under the Logs unit. People usually join a USAR team to be a rescue specialist or a search specialist. No one ever really wants to do Logs or be a Plans officer. Yet, if those vital logs needs are not met, the team is stuck waiting at the airport.

Every level of our government is working to get these issues resolved. They are behind the curve as this disaster occurred in a place where we have had no planning or preparation. Nor should we. Now, we just have to be creative, adapt and overcome.

This isn't our (us as Americans) fault. Sometimes, crap just happens that we can't control. Although armed with the above information, the waiting game is still not an easy one to play.

Lunch is over, time to go back to work. Thanks, as always, for reading.


  1. Dear Captain Schmoe,
    According to the DOD, the airport can handle 90 flights every 24 hours and the port is toast.

    If those politicians, movie stars, and pontificators start flying in for fact finding missions, that's just that many less flights.

    Ann T.

  2. Absolutely spot on about the waiting game and how the press will use it to make us, the USA look like we're dragging our feet. I want to scream when I watch the same footage over and over on the local news beating this into peoples heads. And the people believe it.
    I've said it before, and its worth repeating....I CANT STAND the press.

    Thanks for the post Capt.

  3. Once again a great post Capt. Thank you