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close this bookDisasters Preparedness and Mitigation - Issue No. 31 - July, 1987 (Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) / OrganizaciĆ³n Panamericana de la Salud (OPS), 1987, 8 p.)
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News from PAHO/WHO

Meeting on the Role of Medical and Rescue Teams

Sudden-impact disasters present a real and serious challenge to the world's less-developed countries. The collapse of a large number of urban structures, especially following earthquakes, calls for specialized medical and rescue skills and/or equipment which may not be available in the affected country.

In the aftermath of the recent earthquakes and the volcanic eruption in Latin America, many countries sent rescue and medical teams immediately to the disaster site. These teams, of varying size and composition arrived at different times, for different purposes and brought with them different skills, disciplines and specialized equipment.

As mentioned in the last issue of this Newsletter, a meeting was held in Mexico City from 25-27 May on the Role and Functions of Medical/Rescue Teams in the Aftermath of Sudden-Impact Disasters. Below is a brief summary of the resolutions.

Search and Rescue

The participants discussed the health or rescue skills, disciplines and functions which traditionally have been provided by foreign teams in past disasters and the ways in which such functions may be most effectively used. They also emphasized, however, the need for national authorities themselves in Latin America to develop the necessary search and rescue skills. Some of their recommendations appear in the box at the right.

International Assistance

The participants also endorsed the recommendations of the meeting on International Health Relief Assistance in Latin America, held in Costa Rica in March 1986 (see Issue No. 27 of this Newsletter for more detailed information), paying special attention to requests that foreign medical teams be dispatched only at the specific request of national health authorities of the affected country and that specific programs be directed to the mass media in order to improve the dissemination of technical health information on the situation after disasters, thus breaking the often vicious cycle of inappropriate assistance.

Assessment of Needs

Participation in pre-disaster preparedness is a prerequisite for the sound assessment of needs. It is encouraging to note that this trend is increasing in some countries that have working bilateral agreements. The participants recognized the importance of independent, reliable and prompt assessment of needs and the difficulty of obtaining such information in the first days after a disaster when international public pressure weighs heavily on decision- makers. Health or rescue assessment experts sent by countries or non -govern mental organizations to disaster sites in the Americas should coordinate their activities with those of the assessment team of PAHO/WHO, UNDRO, and the national authorities in order to avoid duplication and to benefit from the disaster expertise and cultural understanding of international personnel stationed in the affected country. They also encouraged leading donors to identify, in advance, health or rescue assessment experts who will cooperate in preparedness activities in Latin America so that those experts and the national teams in disaster-prone countries may effectively accomplish their mission. Finally, donor countries should be encouraged to establish an orientation program with their embassies in disaster-prone countries, including in this program information on disaster preparedness, assessment and handling of needs and recommendations on requests for assistance.


Disaster-prone countries must themselves develop the highly specialized search and rescue skills traditionally provided by the international community. (Photo: Julio Vizcarra/PAHO)

Search and Rescue Skills

Participants at the Mexico City meeting encouraged the development of search and rescue skills in Latin America. To accomplish this they recommended:

· holding bilateral courses or workshops in disaster-prone countries of the Region, and

· encouraging in situ training and technical advice either during a disaster (when time and circumstances permit) or, in particular, before and after a disaster.

They also stressed the need to enhance the role of national authorities in disaster-affected countries:

· at the management or central level, through appropriate preparatory training in order to assign the scope of work, or to accept advice from the international community if desired in those cases where such preparation is inadequate;

· at the search and rescue site, to direct all BAR activities, support foreign teams by indicating where they should operate, and set priorities.

Technical and professional requirements for the national in charge at the search and rescue site were also outlined. These include:

· official authority;
· adequately informed on search and rescue;
· sufficiently knowledgeable of local resources and able to take action in procuring these;
· able to give necessary support to relief teams when difficulties are encountered.