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Rapid response

March 13, 2011

Germany has sent aid workers Japan, where they hope to rescue people trapped beneath rubble. The workers face various obstacles, including potential radiation, but volunteers have worked in similar danger zones before.

THW workers in Pakistan in 2005
German aid workers in quake-hit Pakistan in 2005Image: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

In the aftermath of Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami, Germany has pledged its support to Japan, and not just in the form of money and advice. A team of about 40 aid workers and three search-and-rescue dogs, along with twelve tons of equipment, left Germany for Japan on Saturday. Their main task is to find and save people.

The volunteers come from the German Disaster Relief Agency's Rapid Deployment Unit for Salvage Operations Abroad, known by the German acronym SEEBA. True to its name, the team was ready for takeoff at the airport only six hours after Germany's Interior Ministry sent out the call.

A spokesman for the Disaster Relief Agency, known as THW, explained the team's background to Deutsche Welle.

"The SEEBA team consists of 36 THW forces," said Oliver Hochedez. "[They] come from every sector that lends itself to such disasters, from architectural experts to doctors. The volunteers are all specially trained before they go on their first mission."

Residents walk through rubble in Fukushima prefecture
Casualties were estimated at 1,000 and feared to riseImage: dapd

Prior to the trip, the squad's equipment was at the ready, pre-packaged in lightweight metal boxes. The contents included tools for finding and retrieving trapped people, electrical generators, medical supplies, tents, and food. In a disaster scenario, SEEBA is supposed to be completely self-sufficient for at least 10 days.

No mission without consent

THW does not deploy aid workers without the consent of the country coping with the catastrophe.

"The way it always works is that Germany offers help, as in Japan, and then Japan says yes, we will accept the help," Hochedez said. "Then we send out teams in keeping with the [German] government's mandate. In many cases, the United Nations takes the lead and coordinates efforts, determining where help is needed and making sure nothing is duplicated."

Japan was yet to ask German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle for any further aid as of Saturday.

A successful mission for a THW unit hinges on arriving at the disaster zone as early as possible. Once people get trapped beneath rubble after an earthquake, landslide or tsunami, a merciless battle against the clock begins. While people can be found alive more than one week after a catastrophe, chances of finding survivors fall rapidly after the first 72 hours. That is when death from dehydration becomes a risk.

A seismograph records vibrations in the earth
The earthquake was the biggest in Japan's historyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"In most cases, we send a reconnaissance team of about four to six people to check out the location in advance," Hochedez said. "In the case of Japan, the German embassy [is helping] with preparations [including] renting cars – you can see what the infrastructure there is like – so the team can get to work without delay," Hochedez explained.

The first and most important step for the team would be locating trapped survivors of the disasters. To do so, SEEBA planned to use not only highly sophisticated instruments, but also specially trained search dogs that go on practically every SEEBA mission.

In recent years, SEEBA has worked in India, Turkey and Iran. With possible radioactivity in Japan, THW faces a particularly precarious task this time.

"Our core skills are in search operations," Hochedez said. "This team is an earthquake team, and we have to make sure we put our skills to use. Should the overall situation change, then we too will assess our situation and take appropriate measures, so no aid worker has to operate in a contaminated area."

Author: Michael Gessat / srs
Editor: Nicole Goebel

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