21 May 2024

The concept of a national urban search and rescue (USAR) team set up for large-scale natural or man-made disasters is rather new in Thailand. The country’s only USAR team has just returned from its first international mission, aiding search efforts following the devastating earthquake that levelled thousands of buildings in southern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6.

USAR Thailand was set up in 2014 but its status as a national USAR team was only officially recognized by the National Emergency Operations Center on February 2 last year, according to the Interior Ministry’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM).

The national USAR team comes under the department, which is working with relevant state agencies and private entities to ensure its potential and capabilities meet international standards.

What is USAR?

USAR, considered a multi-hazard discipline, is a specialist capability to locate, provide medical assistance to, and remove victims who have been trapped or affected by a collapsing structure.

It involves a pre-planned, self-sufficient, multi-agency response to collapses resulting from natural or man-made disasters or emergencies. A USAR response is needed for a wide variety of emergencies or disasters, including earthquakes, storms, building collapses, flood dam failures, terrorist attacks, and releases of hazardous material.

Multi-agency team

USAR Thailand was launched under the National Disaster Prevention and Mitigation 2021-2027 plan, with the main goal of upgrading the country’s capability in search and rescue operations as well as humanitarian missions in post-disaster urban areas, according to the department’s website (www.disaster.go.th).

The team comprises experts in search and rescue from state agencies and private organizations including the DDPM, Medical Services Department, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA)’s Office of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, the Engineering Institute of Thailand, and the General Chatichai Choonhavan Foundation.

It is tasked with running search and rescue missions for disaster victims and working with USAR teams from other countries in international operations like the Turkey-Syria quake response.

Thai USAR team before leaving for a mission in Turkey on 9th February 2023.

First overseas mission

Thailand’s USAR team was dispatched to Turkey on February 9, just three days after the earthquake.

It was notified of the mission, called “Thailand for Turkiye”, at short notice after the Thai government decided to send its newly minted international USAR team to Turkey, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said at a ceremony to welcome the team home last Saturday.

The 42 members of the USAR Thailand team were joined in Turkey by two Thai sniffer dogs. Female Golden Retrievers Sierra, 7, and Sahara, 6, passed a training course certified by the International Rescue Dog Organization. They travelled to the earthquake zone along with their handlers, Susan and Andrew Redmond from the Thailand Rescue Dog Association.

The 42-strong team comprised 20 members from the DDPM, 11 from the BMA’s Office of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, three from the Department of Medical Services, two from the Engineering Institute of Thailand, four from NPC Safety and Environmental Service Co, a PTT Global Chemical subsidiary specializing in disaster rescues, and the two dog handlers.

The team started their work on February 11 as aftershocks continued in Hatay, a southern Turkish province on the Mediterranean coast that borders Syria.

They used a sonar device and sniffer dogs to retrieve 25 bodies of earthquake victims buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Meanwhile, three medical personnel in the team treated local residents for injuries and conditions caused by the earthquake.

USAR Thailand also worked alongside 86 search and rescue teams from other countries, together managing to retrieve more than 300 quake survivors trapped under the rubble, according to the Thai government’s website (www.thaigov.go.th).

Hero’s welcome at home

The Thai team left Hatay on February 15 after the international USAR mission was taken over by Turkish search and rescue personnel.

The Thai USAR staff returned home last Saturday (Feb 18) to a hero’s welcome led by the prime minister at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. At the welcoming ceremony, General Prayut hailed the team’s heroic efforts, saying the Thai rescuers had made the country proud by providing humanitarian aid to quake victims in their first overseas operation.

“You all are heroes. I admire your sacrifice,” the PM told the USAR Thailand team as he encouraged the welcoming crowd to give them a big round of applause. He also presented medals to all rescue team members, including the two canines.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk