Fairfax County’s Urban Search and Rescue Team (USAR), also known as VA-Task Force 1 or USA-01, depending on the location of the search and rescue mission, was deployed to assist in the search for victims of the earthquake that occurred on the Turkey/Syria border last week. The USAR team consists of county fire and rescue personnel, along with some civilian trainers and K9 search dogs. The Fairfax USAR team was created in the 1980s and is deployed upon request of the U.S. State Department and USAID for overseas catastrophes, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for emergencies in the United States. When the team is called up, the federal government reimburses the county for overtime and other expenses related to the deployment.
For many years, the USAR team was headquartered at Jefferson Station 18 on Arlington Blvd., but that space proved too small for the burgeoning amount of gear and equipment needed by the team to answer increasingly complicated search and rescue missions. When deployed, the team joins with other rescue personnel (USA-02 from Los Angeles County is working with our Fairfax Team in Turkiye) and the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART). Small groups of both teams were assigned to survey and scrutinize the local area for potential live victims, but actual rescue operations may be done by larger groups of rescuers with the necessary equipment to pull people out of the rubble. Even with hope fading a week after the earthquake, the team has assisted with four live rescues. Turkish authorities are asking teams to conduct searches of large collapsed structures, such as apartment buildings, including delayering the buildings floor by floor. This is extremely intensive and dangerous work, but team members observe stringent safety protocols and deploy with highly trained structural engineers and equipment. If one main objective is to aid in rescue, another main objective is to ensure that every member of the team gets home safely. As of press time, the only reportable injury was to a K9 dog who suffered a minor laceration to his paw clambering over concrete, rebar, and glass in search of life. The good news is that he was treated and remains operational.
There is an eight-hour time difference between Virginia and Turkey, so communications can be difficult, but USAR team members try to conduct regular virtual meetings with family members and colleagues back home. The connections to home and family help assuage the horrors of the work at the earthquake sites. More than 36,000 people have perished, and hundreds, perhaps thousands more, still may be entombed in the crushed buildings. Sadly, as time passes, the chances for additional rescues diminish, and the rescuers turn to recovery operations. At the same time, the international community is working to provide shelter, food, and medicine to the survivors. It is winter in the Middle East; water and power grids were destroyed, and many of the survivors were living in refugee camps after fleeing from war and famine in their own countries. Humanitarian aid is needed; monetary donations can be made through the American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, and other well-known non-profits. Americans are generous people; when our USAR team’s mission is completed, people in Turkey and Syria still will need help.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.