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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 extremel