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The Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011

The following is an extract from the June 2011 edition of Fire News. The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami (東北地方太平洋沖地震, Tōhoku-chihō Taiheiyō Oki Jishin) began at 2:46pm Japan Standard Time on 11th March 2011. The epicentre of the earthquake was in the Pacific Ocean, 72km east of the Oshika Peninsula, and lasted approximately 6 minutes, resulting in a tsunami. The Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) unit of Fire and Rescue NSW travelled to Japan to provide rescue aid in the aftermath of the natural disasters. The conditions were difficult, with snow falling and freezing temperatures, and with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster which occurred as a result of the tsunami.


USAR Task Force Leader - Chief Superintendent Rob McNeil

Chief Superintendent Rob McNeil has had a career with FRNSW spanning 27 years. He has worked in many capacities during that time, including Hazardous Materials Instructor, Breathing Apparatus Instructor, Manager Recruit Training, Hazmat Station Officer, Duty Commander, and Manager of the Hazardous Materials Response Unit.


More recently, Rob has worked in the role of Assistant Director Specialised Operations and is now the Assistant Director Community and Corporate Risk.


Rob’s extensive experience in USAR has included the role of Commander at Holsworthy exercise, training in the United Nations Field Environment Assessment Tool in Singapore and United Nations training in On-Site Operations Coordination Centres in New Zealand, and as Assistant Director, Specialised Operations assisted in organising exercises and courses.


Australian USAR Task Force members on RAAF C17 en route from Richmond to Yokota, Japan. [Fire News]

Japan deployment


The Task Force was deployed to Japan for a period of seven days, arriving on Monday 14 March and returning home on Monday 21 March.


Speaking about how team members were chosen for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami Task Force, Rob said, “Firefighters with USAR qualifications were the main core of the team along with hazmat technicians, paramedics from NSW Ambulance, doctors, engineers, a Police Liaison Officer, communications and GIS experts and Japanese cultural and linguistics specialists.”


“As Task Force Leader in Japan, it was my role to ensure that the command team was functioning well and meeting the set objectives. I liaised with other international officials and USAR teams, especially the Japanese forces in establishing where our staff could be of most benefit on the ground,” he commented.


“Establishing good lines of communication between the Australian Government and my team was another priority, and of course, ensuring team members could regularly communicate with their family at home meant the stability of the staff in my command was maintained. I was mindful of ensuring the overall safety of my team, supporting their needs and ‘going in to bat’ for anything we needed in order to get the job done,” he added.


Rob and the team had to deal with a number of logistical issues during the Japanese deployment. These included no electricity, no food or water and no petrol. Access to rescue sites was very difficult as roads were either blocked or destroyed by the earthquake. The skill and commitment of the logistic personnel in the USAR team, along with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade embassy staff were extremely valuable in assisting the success of the team. They were able to access fuel and transport and had local knowledge of road access. While the Australian USAR team was self-sufficient and had generators, the US military and our own RAAF supplied water and transport, as well as medical assistance.


One team member required plastic surgery for a facial injury incurred in the field and a US helicopter was called in for a medical evacuation.


Australian rescuers searching cars for victim [Museum of Fire collection]

When asked what equipment or hardware was of special assistance to the team during their time at the disaster scene, Rob replied, “Radiation detectors and dosimeters proved invaluable during our day-to-day search and rescue tasks; and at night, warm sleeping bags were a great comfort in the sub-zero conditions,” he said.


Recounting some of the challenges in his leadership role during his time in Japan, Rob gives insights into the hardships the team faced. “The threat of exposure to radiation had a destabilising effect, as radiation exposure levels was viewed as ‘not a pure science’ and fear of the unknown caused some distress. Advice from Australian radiation experts helped reassure team members that their safety was intact. Plenty of text messages to family members and loved ones was also extremely beneficial in providing an emotional support system to the team members,” he added.


“The difficulty in actually getting to rescue sites to offer much needed help to locals was very frustrating for the team. They had been trained to operate successfully at ‘the pointy end’ of disaster areas and the lack of access initially thwarted this driving goal.”


Rob found that the capacity of FRNSW for USAR deployment is robust and the training systems currently in place are well suited for disaster situations. Task Force leadership was critical to ensure a well functioning incident management team. Listening to what team members had to say played a big part in positive outcomes as this empowered them to carry out their duties. Ensuring key risks were identified and managed was a skill essential in the success of the deployment.


From a personal perspective, Rob found the experience made him use all of his skills as a commander and he was grateful for his long history in hazardous materials and radiation exposure management. “At a staff level, my time in this deployment brought home the importance of really listening to team members. This was constantly reinforced and it was rewarding to know that they were confident enough to have open and honest conversations with me,” he commented.


Lessons learnt from the Japan deployment will be valuable in day-to-day working life back home. Rob’s experiences highlighted a number of elements crucial to successful search and rescue operations. Team members need to be competent in the technical aspects of their incident management work. Active risk management processes need to be constantly undertaken in work environments to ensure successful outcomes, and Task Force leaders need to make themselves accessible to team members for open dialogue.


Going into areas of such devastation can be damaging, both psychologically and emotionally. To maintain his emotional health and resilience, Rob remained focussed on each task at hand. Concentrating on the safety of the team each day was also helpful in maintaining psychological strength, as was a balance of the daily workload between the Task Force Leader and the Deputy Task Force Leader. Rob said, “Superintendent Warwick Kidd, a pioneer in USAR capability development, was my Deputy Task Force Leader, and provided fantastic support for me and the whole team.”


Describing highlights of this very taxing deployment, Rob said, “We had a number of gratifying outcomes in terms of the Japanese people themselves. The team were able to recover personal belongings for locals who thought they had lost everything, and we were even able to recover wedding photos for the family of one Japanese woman who had unfortunately perished in the tragedy.”


“Listening to what team members had to say played a big part in positive outcomes as this empowered them to carry out their duties.”


“All of us found reward in having the opportunity to apply our USAR training and skills in such a challenging environment,” he said. “To signal the end of our official assignment, we held a ceremony and handed over my helmet to the Japanese fire captain. This was a stirring and rewarding process and helped us all to be able to process the magnitude of the event, the role we played and the things we encountered.”


“On a more physical level, I reckon the whole team would agree that a major highlight was a hot shower at the US base camp, particularly when night time temperatures had been well below freezing,” reflected Rob.


“I was proud to have been in command of the Task Force, who all demonstrated incredible flexibility and resilience to ensure the deployment was successful, with a safe return home for all team members,” Rob concluded.


In follow up to the deployment, Chief Superintendent Rob McNeil returned to Japan in April to escort the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard and the official party through the devastated area in Minami Sanriku where the Australian Task Force worked.


USAR crew continuing rescue efforts in snowy conditions [Museum of Fire collection]

The Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Celebrating Our Connections with Japan, highlights the significant relationships that Penrith City Council has with its two sister cities in Japan, Fujieda and Hakusan Cities, and the shared appreciation of the history and continued support that fire and rescue services provide. The new exhibition provides a space for reflection and a deeper understanding of Penrith City Council’s international network with Japan, as well as informative information on fire safety in Japan and, of course, the history of Penrith, Fujieda and Hakusans’ ongoing relationship.


The exhibition will be opening on 3rd June 2022. Keep an eye on our website and on our social media channels for updates about the opening day and exhibition development.


- Extract taken from Fire News, June 2011 edition.

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