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A test to save lives

Local search-and-rescue team readied for disasters

Posted: May 21, 2012 5:55 a.m.
Updated: May 20, 2012 5:55 a.m.

Members of the California Task Force 2 Urban Search and Rescue Team use a circular saw to break up concrete at a training exercise near Val Verde on Sunday.

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VAL VERDE - A handheld power saw cuts through a cluster of tumbled concrete blocks, showering the local firefighter with sparks.

He and the other 74 members of an elite rescue unit are working against time on a hilltop overlooking Val Verde.

Rousted out of their beds at dawn Saturday, he and the other Los Angeles County firefighters who serve as members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department's California Task Force 2 Urban Search and Rescue Team were told to respond to an earthquake that happened in Lampe, Chile, northwest of Santiago, Chile.

The elite response team is called USAR Team 2 for short.

It includes firefighters, paramedics, emergency room doctors, structural engineers, heavy equipment specialists, hazardous materials technicians, and communications and logistics specialists.

"We bring the cream of the crop to our team," said the fire department's Capt. Mark Fraser. "We have physicians because sometimes we need to treat our members, sometimes some of the victims."

Simulated quake

USAR Team 2 members were told before breakfast Saturday to respond to the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Del Valle Regional Training Facility on Chiquito Canyon Road, off Highway 126.

Some knew before they answered the phone that the response order was a training exercise; some did not, Fraser said.

The simulated 7.3 Chilean earthquake was testing time for the elite unit - one of only two such emergency response teams in America recognized internationally as being qualified to respond to any disaster in the world at a minute's notice.

In order to ensure the team meets the minimal emergency response standards set by the United States Agency for International Development, it must be evaluated.

This weekend's 48-hour simulation test is called the United States Agency for International Development exercise.

An 8-man delegation of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group spent the weekend evaluating the team's readiness for international deployment.

The only other American response team recognized by the international deployment agency is based in Virginia.

The local unit was officially given the thumbs up for international deployment in 2007. This weekend, it fulfilled its responsibility for reclassification for every five years.

"This is a collapsed five-story structure, and these guys have been working all night long, non-stop pulling victims out along the way," said Lt. Larry Collins, pointing to simulated rescue efforts.


Command tent

Inside a command center tent, response leaders studied a table-sized topographic map of Lampe, Chile.

Red sticky notes stuck to the map marked testing areas.

At one site, crew members wearing protective masks and hard hats, using jackhammers and circular saws, cut through a pile of concrete slabs arranged to look like a collapsed five-story hotel.

At another site, medical teams were assessed on how they responded to life-size dummies pulled from the rubble.

A third crew was assessed on how they fortified a two-story house damaged during the simulated earthquake.

Sunday's earthquake in northern Italy that killed at least four people and caused serious damage to buildings in several towns is the type of natural disaster to which the USAR Team 2 would be deployed. However, the local team will not be going, as other teams around the world can handle the emergency.

The magnitude-6.0 quake struck in the middle of the night, about 22 miles north of the city of Bologna.




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