New Delhi: Disaster response teams from India have been working day and night in quake-hit Turkey over the past 11 days, spending hours cutting through the rubble of collapsed structures and trying to catch faint cries for help from under the wreckage amid freezing weather conditions, severe aftershocks and precariously leaning buildings.
The devastating earthquake on 6 February inflicted huge loss of life and property in both Turkey and Syria. Within hours, India responded with disaster relief material and response teams.
For the first few days, the teams, belonging to the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), were deployed in the worst-affected areas of Gaziantep, located just 23 km from the epicentre. With no water and electricity and only limited packed food, the battalion worked day and night under harsh weather conditions to pull a number of people out alive.
The teams have now shifted base to Hatay province.
Speaking to ThePrint from Hatay over the telephone, Commandant Gurminder Singh, heading the operation in Turkey, said the devastation was “overwhelming”.
“The devastation is massive. The first three to four days after the operation began, the teams were working non-stop without any food, water or sleep. That is because the first few days are crucial as we attempt to pull out as many people alive as possible,” he said.
“It is so overwhelming to work in such conditions where it is constantly snowing, the weather is so harsh, there are no resources like firewood or gas or water. So many people are caught under the rubble and their families are crying for help,” he added.
“On top of that, there are aftershocks and the adjacent buildings are leaning precariously and would collapse any moment. It requires great strength and dedication for the teams to carry on operations in such conditions,” he added.
Recalling an episode where all 10 members of a family, all Syrian refugees, were pulled out dead, Singh said, “The entire family was wiped out in the disaster. There was no one to claim the bodies. It was heart wrenching,” Singh said.
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‘Intelligence gathering, search and rescue’
In times of disaster, NDRF teams are trained to pull out the maximum number of people alive in a limited time. The search and rescue operations are carried out in both collapsed structures as well as those on the verge of collapse.
As part of the drill, the affected areas are divided into sectors and teams are deployed. The first step in such operations is intelligence gathering to get an idea of how many people could be stuck under the rubble.
“We work closely with the local authorities to ascertain how many people could be stuck under the collapsed structure. The teams then secure the area and begin the operation. They start the work to cut through the rubble and catch any signal of life, for instance, a faint cry or a cry for help,” Singh explained.
The teams’ equipment includes victim locators and seismic radars. “The equipment helps us to do a thorough search. We put the seismic radars to the ground and it catches even the slightest movement to tell us that someone is trapped. We also make use of equipment for thermal images,” Singh said.
“And our trump card is our dog squad that can sniff human life under the rubble. The squad has helped us immensely through this operation,” he added.
This is not the first time that India is sending NDRF teams for relief work abroad. Personnel were sent during the Japan triple disaster in 2011 — an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown — and the Nepal earthquake in 2015.
A specialised team for disaster response
The NDRF, a dedicated force formed in 2006 to handle natural as well as man-made disasters, is also trained and equipped for response during chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) emergencies.
It was in the late 90s and early 2000s that India faced some of its severest natural calamities, including the Odisha super cyclone in 1999, the Gujarat earthquake in 2001 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. These highlighted the need for a comprehensive disaster management plan and led to the the Disaster Management Act being enacted on 26 December, 2005. The NDRF was constituted under this law.
At present, the NDRF has 15 battalions, each consisting of 1149 personnel. Every battalion has 18 self-contained specialist search and rescue teams of 45 personnel each, comprising engineers, technicians, electricians, dog squads, and paramedics.
Speaking to ThePrint, NDRF director-general Atul Karwal said, “In the NDRF, we have a seven-year deputation policy because age is a big factor. Personnel have to be fit since they have to operate in harsh conditions with heavy equipment.”
He said the personnel undergo rigorous training for nine weeks — the Basic First Respondent Course (BFRC). The BFRC includes components such as the Medical First Respondent Course (MFRC), Aquatic Disaster Response (ADR) and Collapsed Structure Search and Rescue (CCSR).
While the MFRC teaches personnel first aid techniques to help victims after rescue, ADR trains them to operate boats, underwater gear, swim and dive. The CCSR course teaches them search and rescue techniques.
Another important aspect of training, Karwal said, is CBRN, in which personnel are trained to recognise and detect chemicals and gas leaks, and work in rescue operations in affected locations.
“They are trained in what antidotes to give in such a situation, how to identify the source of a radioactive leak from a chemical lab or a hospital or a diagnostic centre, how to ascertain the strength of the radioactive elements, and how to carry out rescue operations,” he said.
“Besides showing its professionalism during rescue operations, the NDRF has also acquired considerable expertise in facing CBRN challenges. The creditable task of the NDRF in retrieving Cobalt-60 radiological material at Mayapuri, Delhi, during April and May 2010 has been an acid test for the force’s CBRN capability,” he said.
Karwal added that the personnel also pursue master’s degrees in these courses and are sent abroad for training.
“There are training sessions abroad that are attended by our personnel. For instance, in the United States, they learn from the best and then apply this in their operations,” he said.
Initially, when the NDRF was constituted, its personnel were also deployed for routine law and order duties. However, the need to make it a dedicated force for disaster response was highlighted and accepted during a meeting of the National Disaster Management Authority with then prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2007. This was made official in the NDRF Rules, notified in February 2008.
(Edited by Geethalakshmi Ramanathan)