Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service
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We will have formal communications approaches but I thought it also useful to try to keep folk in the loop about how we are reacting and responding to the tragedy unfolding before our eyes in Japan.
It started (for me) on Friday morning when the early calls were coming in from the co-ordination centre to "stand up" our Search and Rescue team. This was hot on the heels of having just stood them down - there was a suggestion earlier last week of sending a second wave of people to New Zealand but in the event the decision was taken not to. As the day passed and more images started to come through this was obviously going to be a disaster of epic proportions so it became obvious there would be a response required.
We therefore got preparations to despatch the team moving.
At a national level there was also a debate commenced in relation to what other help might be needed and the Fire and Rescue Service provide in terms of equipment and expertise. (And this wider preparation continues).
The call to despatch actually came early Saturday morning, and it was agreed that the team would fly from Manchester (colleagues in DFID made the actual arrangements in consultation with colleagues in the Fire Service through the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA)).
Teams from around the Country then started making their way to Wythenshawe fire station which we agreed to use as a rendezvous point and marshalling centre. As we had worked up the preparation it became apparent that a lot of the national "capacity" - in other words the rescue kit - was still somewhere between Christchurch and the UK. It often takes a long time to repatriate/ refund for equipment used for rescue in other countries (major earthquakes do not normally come in such quick succession). Accordingly, we decided to deploy the GMCFRS equipment as part of the deployment. In truth, this does leave us a "bit short" in the event of a major catastrophe in GM and it would take us a little while to assemble more kit (and we are doing that as we speak) - but to us the humanitarian requirement that is clearly here and now, outweighed every theoretical "risk" of what "might" happen.
I attended Wythenshawe fire station to do anything I could to assist before the team flew out - but in truth there was little I could add - the preparation was impressive with all the team getting pre deployment medicals and ensuring they were as prepared as they could be. It was good for me to be able to offer any words of encouragement and support I could however, and it was also nice to catch up with colleagues who I had not seen for many years in other Services I have previously worked in (it's a small world).
I have met with the teams every time we have done an overseas deployment - pretty much every one for the last 12 years I have been a Chief Officer (and there have been a surprisingly high number of deployments over that period) but I discerned a different mood amongst the team. Not only was this a massive event and there were anxieties about the difference they could make (but a desire to do whatever they could) but also a sense that unlike many other events that have happened and we go in to support the aftermath - Japan remains a live situation. The issues around the nuclear power station explosions and risks also added to the sense of going in to the unknown in a way not experienced before.
The team deployed on Saturday night, arriving yesterday. I received a text from the team leader - Pete Stevenson - in the early hours and thought it worth sharing.
"Sir, about 60km away from ofunato where we will set up a base of operations jointly with the 2 American teams. Expect to work 4 some time until satisfied we have done all we can there. Aware of 2nd nuclear plant but we are over 100 km away and constantly monitoring the situation. Team in good spirits but grim task for some time yet. Regards, Pete"
He's right - I am sure it will be a grim task but one that is crucial and one that we are immensely proud of - let's hope and pray they can make a difference and they all return safe. I cannot imagine how the Japanese people are coping with these events - the scale of the challenge is beyond the imagination of most of us. What I do know, though, is that it really is at times like this that the human spirit rises to meet the challenge. I also know that it really is important that all communities pull together. If we can make a difference to just a few people's lives, and help Japan get back on its feet, then that will represent not just "career highlights" for the people involved (Pete actually retires from the Service when he returns - this is his last mission), but it will represent something much much deeper for the people concerned.
Could I close by publicly thanking everyone at Manchester Airport who were superb. Not only did they make it as easy as possible for the team to get through Customs etc - but they hosted them in an exemplary way - just a small gesture but it made an enormous difference to the people concerned.