After the massive earthquake struck Mexico City last week, a team of Los Angeles firefighters packed their bags and traveled to the areas hardest hit by the temblor.
After a disaster, depending on the scope, the Urban Search & Rescue team (USAR) is either deployed immediately or put on "alert status" so that its members can prepare to be deployed at a moment's notice and assist USAID operations. The Los Angeles USAR team arrived at 5 a.m. in Mexico City on Thurs., Sept. 21, and have been conducting around-the-clock operations.
L.A.'s USAR crew is a Heavy Type 1 team with 67 personnel, including two doctors, six paramedics and five dogs. Right now, it also has a smaller team in Puerto Rico, which makes it the first time that two separate teams have been simultaneously deployed.
The L.A. team of doctors and paramedics in Mexico City set up their base of operations in a medical tent, where they plan for rescues, store supplies and care for the rescue dogs. A group of rescue dogs from Tijuana were visiting the site but they did not stay there, instead they shared a compound with rescue teams from Spain and Colombia.
For medical specialist Robert Nowaczyk, a born-and-raised Angeleno, Mexico is his fourth international deployment after earthquake responses in Haiti, New Zealand and Nepal. He also took part in relief efforts in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. The current team went to Japan in addition to the other three countries. Out of all five international deployments over the last 12 years, the team has 11 "saves," where they pulled people from the rubble. They have provided countless other lifesaving services throughout their deployments.
"The response in Mexico has been amazing," Nowaczyk says. "Wherever we go, people are clapping in the streets, offering us food and water. Volunteers are lining up on the street with their hard hats and tools, waiting in line to come get a bucket."
There has been joint coordination with Mexican and Israeli search-and-rescue teams at the site of a collapsed building at Álvaro Obregón 286, to continue searching for victims and removing debris. James Lile says there is a lot of cooperation between the local Mexican rescue teams and the international crews like the L.A. County firefighters.
"We realize we're a component of a larger operation, working with other international teams and the host country," Lille says. "We work with the LEMA, local emergency management agency. The plan is continuously re-evaluated to determine where our resources can be most effective."
Originally from Detroit, Lile has spent 28 years on the L.A. County Fire Department, and has also been to Haiti, New Zealand and Nepal for earthquake relief, as well as an exercise in Armenia to help train personnel there to respond to a major quake.
"The folks back home should be very proud of USAR teams, as we represent not only L.A. and USAID but also the United States of America as an agent of good will, expertise and professionalism. We're one of the finest search-and-rescue teams in the world, but that's just my opinion," Lile says with a laugh.
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USAR team member Gary Durian decided to sign up to become a firefighter during college after his mom, who worked with the fire department, gave him the idea. Durian says, "It's a real privilege to be on an international team — I've been to Haiti, Japan, Nepal — to be able to assist people in dire need, hopefully rescue more survivors, but at least let the people know that we're doing everything possible to help. It's a very gratifying feeling."