Disaster Resilience: GSAR
Jul 15, 2009

An ice storm strands thousands without access to power or heat. As home temperatures drop, authorities are stretched to the limit and turn to the local volunteer Search and Rescue (SAR) team to check on house-bound residents. But some SAR team members are unable to assist because they must look after their own families who don’t have heat in their own homes, and others can’t be reached because the automated pager system is down.

When disaster strikes, communities will rely on GSAR responders to provide surge capacity.

Variations of this scenario could include a flood, cyber-attack, earthquake, wildfire or tornado that storms into town.

What enables volunteer Ground Search and Rescue (GSAR) responders to assist their communities under such catastrophic conditions? The answer lies in a high degree of individual, organizational, and ­institutional resilience.

The concept of resilience is used in many disciplines, such as in ­ecology, psychology and emergency management. The federal and provincial governments define resilience as “the capacity of a system, community or society potentially exposed to hazards to adapt, by resisting or changing in order to reach and maintain an acceptable level of functioning and structure.” Generally speaking, disaster resilience refers to the ability to survive disasters with the smallest possible impact, and the ability to recover from them quickly.

Resilience receives much attention internationally. Increasingly, it is also being stressed in Canada, particularly within the emergency management community. Disaster resilience was, for example, the theme of the 2008 World Conference in Disaster Management, sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness. Inevitably, this paradigm shift will come to Ground SAR, hastened by the expanding use of GSAR responders during disasters, and the improved organization of GSAR throughout Canada.

Some disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, are so significant that they overwhelm any response machinery that stands against them. Nevertheless, even in the most severe of cases, increased resilience at all levels will mean reduced impact and faster recovery.

The Importance of Resilience
Why is it important to build a resilient GSAR capability? For one, our society is more interdependent and interconnected than ever before. While this has obvious benefits, disasters can cause catastrophic consequences. For instance, the centralization of critical infrastructure can provide significant financial and efficiency benefits, however, in case of failure, large numbers of people are affected. The heavily networked urban populations do not have the dependable safety net of their rural neighbours, who can depend on wood stoves, generators, wells and individual septic systems – and that country “savoir-faire” with hammer and baler twine. The world’s population is increasing, and so too is the number of people living in hazard-prone areas, such as along the coast or on flood plains.

The number of disasters worldwide is undeniably on the rise, putting us at risk more frequently than ever before. Additionally, communities are sometimes faced with new threats for which they may not be fully prepared, such as tornadoes in areas unaccustomed to them, or the current H1N1 flu pandemic.

When disaster strikes, communities will rely on GSAR responders to provide surge capacity. More and more jurisdictions are tasking GSAR responders to check on house-bound citizens, fill sandbags, assist with evacuations or in shelters, or perform other crucial tasks. The resilience of GSAR teams is, therefore, a vital component of emergency preparedness.

A GSAR system that can assist during emergencies may well prevent a crisis from escalating to loss of life, injury or suffering; property or environmental damage; disruption of utilities; and/or negative impacts on local businesses. Clearly, a strong GSAR team can help to reduce general stress on the community.

Tasking agencies, and the public they serve, expect a reliable GSAR capability. By not responding, or by responding poorly, a team risks not only its reputation, but also the reputation of all volunteer GSAR units throughout Canada.

Challenges to Developing Resilience
The key obstacles to resilience relate to the volunteer nature of unpaid GSAR. Many GSAR teams struggle with attracting the required number of volunteers. Understandably, volunteer work is often prioritized after family or work commitments. Volunteers are usually not pre-screened with respect to leadership and project-management abilities, and are often assigned roles based on enthusiasm and availability rather than experience or personal suitability. Differences in leadership, vision, corporate culture, or risk tolerance may mean that the team’s direction is contested or the team’s activities are inefficient.

Efforts to develop resilience must compete for attention with efforts to support or improve day-to-day operations. It may already be difficult to get members to participate in standard training and fundraising activities. Additional requirements could take away from core activities.

Every team, no matter how well funded, must prioritize its investments according to a number of criteria, resilience being but one. The high cost of robust equipment and redundant systems is often prohibitive. A standard laptop is fairly inexpensive, but demands careful transportation and handling, as well as a sheltered operating environment. Laptops hardened against the environment are available, but cost more than seven times as much.

Disaster-resilient GSAR in interconnected on three different levels: individual, organizational and institutional. All critical systems demand redundancy.

No national consistency in GSAR structure, training, or standards exists. Volunteer GSAR falls under the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories, and for this reason the responsibilities accorded to volunteers differ from one jurisdiction to the next (for example, few volunteer GSAR teams manage searches in Ontario and Quebec, whereas this is the accepted practice in the rest of Canada). There is no standardized team structure or training curriculum, although some jurisdictions are advancing along that path.

Levels of Resilience
Disaster-resilient GSAR is an adaptable system that is interconnected on three different levels: individual, organizational, and institutional.

The individual responder is the backbone of volunteer GSAR, yet shocks are usually most frequent, and felt most severely at this level, since his or her exposure is greatest and resources are fewest. For example, looking after a sick family member or pet, a demanding project at work, or car trouble can quickly prevent an individual GSAR responder from being available during disasters.

The Government of Canada has developed a “72 Hour” emergency preparedness guide to increase the resilience of individuals to disasters (www.GetPrepared.ca ). In a three-step process, Canadians are urged to know the risks of disaster in the area where they live (for example, an earthquake-prone area); to make an emergency plan (such as pre-establishing who would look after the family pets); and to assemble an emergency preparedness kit (including essential supplies like a flashlight, food and water).

At the absolute minimum, GSAR responders should be prepared to look after themselves and their families for this three-day period, so as not to burden a strained system. To ensure that GSAR responders are never part of the problem, seven days of self-sufficiency is a better target for them.

In addition to being able to look after themselves for up to a week, responders will need to arrange their lives so that they are free to leave home or work for days at a time to assist others, and that their families, pets, property and job responsibilities are adequately taken care of without them.

Search and Rescue, First-Aid, Critical Incident Stress and disaster training should be current. Advanced training and experience gained from exercises and incidents has the added advantage of increasing the resilience of responders. The team’s policies and Standard Operating Procedures should be understood by all members.

In addition to the supplies in the emergency preparedness kit discussed earlier, equipment specific to the responder’s GSAR and disaster roles must also be at the ready. This means the volunteer’s SAR response pack, but also work gloves, work boots, safety glasses, hard hat, hand saw, shovel, and so on.

Lastly, responders should ensure that they have multiple ways to connect into their GSAR organization. Do they have a contact list for the other members? Do they know who lives near them? Do they have several means of communication, or are they relying exclusively on cell phones?

Organizational resilience requires adaptability at the team level. The first step to a disaster-resilient GSAR team is proficiency at the team’s primary mandate: GSAR ­incidents. This includes being able to carry out multiple simultaneous or consecutive missions, mid-week deployments, and extended responses.

Team equipment must be robust. It must work reliably in extreme conditions – in the rain, heat, cold, or the dead of night – all without access to grid power. All ­critical systems demand redundancy; for example, if using an automated pager ­system, is there a human-based backup? A complex system that requires special skills will be vulnerable to collapse during a disaster; for example, advanced software or specialized radio equipment will rapidly become useless if the people trained to operate it are not available. Member and resource directories should be created and widely available to the team.

It is vital that team procedures and member roles are kept simple. During a disaster, a lower level of overall functioning must be assumed; people cannot work at their best when physically and mentally exhausted. As in any extended mission, specialty personnel may not be available. It is therefore necessary to assume some roles will be filled by members without specific training. Checklists and instruction sheets should be developed for mission-critical equipment and procedures.

The following five-part test can be used to determine whether a team’s equipment, procedures or processes build resilience:

  1. Is it necessary? Does the equipment or procedure contribute meaningfully to the response?
  2. Will it work in a “worst-case” ­operating environment?
  3. Is it intuitive and simple? Can it be understood or operated by someone with no previous training?
  4. Is it sustainable? Can it be used longer-term without taking away from other important areas?
  5. Is it professional? Does it support GSAR responders as professionals, and inspire confidence in their work by tasking agencies, the media, and the public?

Recruitment and staffing must also consider resilience. Does the team have enough members? Have the right people been recruited? Are they able to improvise, are they flexible, reliable, and available? Are they personally resilient as discussed above? Are their talents effectively employed within the organization?

Training is a major aspect of developing resilient GSAR. More and more disaster-specific content is finding its way into the training program of many teams. The importance of regional exercises, preferably with tasking agencies and adjoining teams, cannot be overstated. Incidents and exercises should generate lessons learned, which need to be shared and followed up on.

Teams need to develop healthy relationships with other volunteer groups, provincial and national associations, tasking agencies, surrounding communities, and the media. Participation in annual meetings, engagement with these groups, and joint training and exercises are helpful to developing these relationships.

Resources of the team may be supplemented by others called upon through both mutual aid agreements and contracts with service providers. While these extended services may, depending on their source, be affected by the same disaster and thus unavailable, strong networks of mutual aid and service providers are a factor in developing resilience. Such agreements or contracts should not be counted on for mission-critical assets – during a true disaster such assets will likely be unavailable. If you don’t own it, you don’t control it!

GSAR organizations do not operate in a vacuum, but rather interact with tasking agencies, communities, and bodies that organize or support GSAR. Collectively, these mechanisms comprise the institutional level.

GSAR teams are now commonly being written into municipal emergency management plans. During disasters, tasking agencies will call upon GSAR teams to provide surge capacity. To use these resources most effectively, knowledge of the benefits and limitations of GSAR, protocols for working together and trust must be established ahead of time. If resources to address Critical Incident Stress are available through these tasking agencies, this needs to be identified.

Strong community support also helps build resilience. For example, if a SAR team is adopted by the community as “their” SAR team, this will help support GSAR responders during an emergency. In the same vein, a good relationship with the media is also essential. Employers also have a role to play in ensuring that GSAR responders are available to help during disasters, by being flexible with work schedules and leave.

More broadly still, the governing bodies of GSAR have tremendous leadership potential in ensuring a resilient capability. The GSAR Council of Canada, the RCMP as the National GSAR Champion, the National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS), the Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada (SARVAC), provincial SAR associations and provincial emergency programs, could all support disaster-resilient GSAR. This support could take the form of policy guidance; standardized disaster training; the sharing of information, such as best practices and lessons learned; insurance; and equipment.

Given the challenges facing volunteer GSAR, it is rarely possible for responders and teams to become disaster-resilient overnight. Rather, it is necessary for individual responders, GSAR teams and supporting institutions to deliberately choose the resilient option going forward. It’s about creating a culture of resilience to be prepared when disaster strikes.

Granted, a certain amount of resilience is inherent in human ingenuity and in those networks already in place. Most of those affected by disaster will find ways to overcome, as they always have.

Aggressively building disaster resilience in GSAR will, however, reduce ­property damage, injury, suffering, or even death, as well as the burden on the team and its responders. After all, disaster-resilient GSAR ultimately benefits all Canadians as a component of the emergency preparedness of their communities.

Roland Hanel is the Search Commander and Chief of Operations for Ottawa-Gatineau’s Search and Rescue Global 1. In 2008, Roland was awarded a Certificate of Achievement by the National Search and Rescue Secretariat for his contribution to Search and Rescue in Canada. A lawyer by training, he now works in Emergency Management for Public Safety Canada.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and is not intended to represent the views of Search and Rescue Global 1, Public Safety Canada, or the National Search and Rescue Secretariat.
© FrontLine Security 2009