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Almanac

Cover Story - March 28, 2012

Mutual aid

A year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Japanese firefighters are back in Menlo Park honing their skills at disaster response.

Almanac photos and reporting by Michelle Le

A group of Japanese firefighters was in Menlo Park last week to receive training from one of the Bay Area's elite disaster-response agencies. A little more than a year after Japan's earthquake and tsunami disaster, eight Japanese firefighters were practicing basic search-and-rescue skills at a training facility operated by the California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3.

Since 2003, Japan has sent small groups of firefighters for weeklong training sessions with Task Force 3, made up of fire and rescue personnel from 16 Bay Area agencies. It is one of 28 National Urban Search and Rescue teams, said Harold Schapelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

In March 2011, 12 Japanese fire personnel were in Menlo Park when the earthquake and tsunami devastated their home country. Chief Schapelhouman said it was an emotional experience trying to get the firefighters back to Japan to reconnect with their families and help in the rescue effort.

Training at the Task Force 3 facility includes an earthquake-scenario response drill involving a massive pile of collapsed debris, training with canines, and learning about the psychological impacts of search-and-rescue efforts on rescuers and victims.

Teams from around the world come to Menlo Park's training facility, the Baylands Structural Collapse Training Center, located on the northern side of the Bayfront Expressway, along the western side of the Dumbarton Bridge behind a PG&E electrical substation.

Trainees are sometimes awakened in the middle of the night to respond to simulated disasters. "It's dark, there are things on fire, we have live victims," Chief Schapelhouman said.

In Japan

Among the Japanese firefighters in Menlo Park last week was Kohei Okita, who worked to find survivors during the Japanese quake and tsunami a year ago. He said through a translator that when he arrived at his assigned town in Japan, he had only a conventional map to guide him, which complicated the rescue effort.

"Everything was wiped out," he said. Firefighters had to abandon their engines and walk for two hours with all the equipment they could carry.

Once on the scene, they had to guess where the victims were by focusing on major landmarks. One improvement that he would like to see in Japan is a grid system for search and rescue, similar to that used by the Incident Command System in the United States.

In Menlo Park

Takahiro Sato, another Japanese firefighter in Menlo Park last week, co-founded the Japan Task Force last year to improve response capabilities. It has 27 members, including firefighters, doctors and nurses. They, in turn, have trained more than 200 firefighters in Japan.

The Japanese firefighters took vacation days to come to Menlo Park and paid out of their own pockets to participate in the program.

Japan and the U.S. have some similarities but many differences in the way they handle disaster response, Mr. Sato said. In the U.S., he said, the federal government provides more financial support for emergency response. In Japan, most rescue equipment comes from local funding.

"At that moment in Japan (when the earthquake occurred), we didn't have good training or an education system for rescue training," he said.

The California task force, he said, offers some of the best training systems and facilities in the nation.

While Japanese cities had invested significant resources into training equipment, he said, their responses to the earthquake and tsunami were hampered by poor communication between defense forces, police departments, fire departments and doctors.

The government, he said, did not respond efficiently, and individual fire stations had to act independently.

The Japanese firefighters are just one of many teams around the world that come to the Menlo Park training facility. Task Force 3 has trained teams from Australia, China, Canada, France, Germany and Taiwan, many of whom go back to teach search-and-rescue crews in their native countries.

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