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NSW USAR on the International Stage –10 Years since United Nations Classification

USAR is the Urban Search and Rescue task force, consisting of a variety of specialists in a multi-agency approach which combines the expertise and the personnel of Fire and Rescue NSW, NSW Police, NSW SES, NSW Ambulance, Engineers from NSW Public Works, AusAid and Emergency Management Australia. Consisting of 72 individuals, predominantly made up of FRNSW members, the task force is led by a senior officer responsible for all facets of the task force’s operations. From there it is broken down into 4 operational teams to be able to sustain 24-hour operation over the course of deployment.


 Fire and Rescue NSW poster, Christchurch earthquake 2011, two heavy USAR task forces, compilation of 4 photographs – Museum of Fire Digital collection
Fire and Rescue NSW poster, Christchurch earthquake 2011, two heavy USAR task forces, compilation of 4 photographs – Museum of Fire Digital collection

The story of USAR in NSW begins in 1998 when the first Category 2 USAR courses were run. Over the years the team has continued to develop the course and skills of those who are involved to become a task force capable of assisting a humanitarian crisis. Some of the instances in which the NSW USAR team have been deployed were during the 2010-2011 Queensland floods assisting Queensland Fire and Rescue Service (QFRS). Additionally, they have participated in the international sphere by providing assistance to New Zealand with the Christchurch earthquakes that occurred in February 2011.In that same year in March, USAR were deployed again to assist Japan after they suffered a horrendous earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku.


In September of 2012 the NSW USAR task force sought to be accredited by the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) via its External Classification Exercise (IEC). This is operated by the United Nations and aims to provide classification to international USAR groups so that when countries call for humanitarian aid, they can trust that the teams being sent are capable and can accomplish all tasks put before them. In the 12 to 18 months leading up to the accreditation exercise, FRNSW representatives visited Spain, Germany, Finland, South Korea, Japan, Oman and the USA which provided invaluable insight for the preparation of the USAR team. Closer to the date but in the lead up to the IEC FRNSW ran multiple 48-hour exercises to further prepare those involved to pass the exercise and help achieve United Nations recognition.


Fire and Rescue NSW poster, Japan Earthquake and tsunami 2011 Heavy USAR task force compilation of 3 photos – Museum of Fire Digital Collection
Fire and Rescue NSW poster, Japan Earthquake and tsunami 2011 Heavy USAR task force compilation of 3 photos – Museum of Fire Digital Collection

At the date of the exercise, the site of Queensland’s Combined Emergency Services Academy located on Whyte Island was selected. At this site was a prop designed to test the task force in multiple complex scenarios which involved exercises of vertical rescue, confined spaces, breaching and breaking materials in order to recover victims from rubble. All of these were situated in relation to a multi storey reinforced concrete building collapsing due to an earthquake. One of the scenarios involved in this situation saw the USAR team removing over 20 tonnes of concrete from a car. This particular test required the NSW USAR team to sustain a 36-hour operation over two sperate locations. Thus, for such a task it was required of the team to establish a Base of Operations which managed the rotation of crews across the multi-agency task force. The task force was also required to demonstrate the ability to establish an Onsite Operations Coordination Centre which carries out the United Nations function of coordinating the arrival and deployment of other international USAR teams until a United Nations representative arrives in the country.


Fire and Rescue NSW poster, 2012 United Nations INSARAG classification of Heavy USAR task force, compilation of 3 photographs and the United Nations INSARAG classification logo – Museum of Fire Digital Collection
Fire and Rescue NSW poster, 2012 United Nations INSARAG classification of Heavy USAR task force, compilation of 3 photographs and the United Nations INSARAG classification logo – Museum of Fire Digital Collection

After an exhausting 36 hours the USAR team were able to pack up and go home. It was unanimously decided by INSARAG that the NSW USAR task force had demonstrated all the requirements of the exercise, meeting all 200 points of the criteria satisfactorily. Overall, among the 7 classifiers that oversaw this exercise, the Chinese delegate Dr Peng Bibo who specializes in the medical aspect of USAR quipped to the Commissioner Greg Mullins that he had, “no work to do” because the NSW task force was working so well. Of further note was the deployment management of the NSW USAR task force being to such a high standard via the implementation of the mobilization card that other international USAR task forces took note and wished to add it to their operations.

10 years on our USAR task force continues to hone their skills via regularly updated training and with state-of-the-art facilities such as the Emergency Services Academy located in Orchard Hills NSW where it has a dedicated simulation space for USAR activities. It is a privilege that the state of NSW has one of the most highly trained rescue task forces in the world.


- Story by Museum of Fire Heritage Team




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