International Search and Rescue: How it Worked in Haiti

As a disaster management technical adviser for Microsoft, Gisli Olafsson provides guidance internationally and describes how technology aided response to the Haiti earthquake.

by / March 24, 2010

[Photo: Members of Gisli Olafsson's search and rescue team in Haiti carry an injured woman from a collapsed building. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.]

Gisli Olafsson has been a disaster management technical adviser for Microsoft’s Global Strategic Accounts team since September 2007. In that capacity, Olafsson is responsible for providing guidance to international organizations — such as the United Nations, International Federation of Red Cross, World Bank, Commonwealth, United States Agency for International Development and NATO — on the effective use of information and communication technology to enhance response to natural disasters.

Olafsson has more than 15 years of experience in the field of disaster management and is an active member of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team, which is on standby to deploy anywhere in the world on a six-hour notice. The team coordinates the first response of the international community to disasters on behalf of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Olafsson is one of the key members of Microsoft’s Disaster Response Team, which provides assistance to governments and leading response organizations dealing with natural disasters and pandemics worldwide. 

In recent years, Olafsson has participated in disaster field missions in connections with floods in Ghana (2007); Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar (2008); Hurricane Ike in Texas (2008); the Sichuan, China, earthquake (2008); the pandemic outbreak (2009); the West Sumatra earthquake (2009); and during the Haiti earthquake in January as the team leader for the Icelandic Urban Search and Rescue team.

What is your background and experience in responding to international disasters and what individual roles have you played?

I originally started as a search and rescue (SAR) volunteer in Iceland back in 1994. I quickly discovered I was better at coordinating things than running up mountains. This led to me joining the King County (Wash.) Emergency Operations Center support team when I lived in Seattle from 1998 to 2001, and after I moved back to Iceland, I became a member of the Capitol Area SAR command and then the National SAR command.

In 2005, this experience in incident management lead to me becoming a team leader for our Urban SAR team as well as a member of the UNDAC team, which is a group of around 200 emergency managers from around the world who are on call 24/7 to respond to help coordinate the response of the international community. In the past three years I’ve gone to missions in Ghana and Indonesia on behalf of the UNDAC. I recently was the team leader of the Icelandic Urban Search and Rescue team when it went to Haiti following the devastating earthquake there.

How does this work merge with your being employed by Microsoft?

In my role at Microsoft, I advise international organizations such as the UN, World Bank and the European Union as well as governments, on how to better utilize technology to enhance response to disasters. As part of that role, I am a member of the corporate disaster response team, called Microsoft Disaster Response. In that role I have responded to the Myanmar/Burma cyclone, Sichuan earthquake, Hurricane Ike (Galveston, Texas) and the H1N1 outbreak (Geneva). In many ways I am very lucky that I was able to combine my two passions in life — disaster management and technology, and get paid for doing what I love.

Since you have lived and worked in the United States and are a native Icelander — what differences are there between how the United States and other industrialized nations prepare for and respond to disasters?

In my experience there are many similarities in how industrialized nations deal with disasters. In most countries you have seen a shift during the last decade from response focus to preparedness focus. You also see that in these countries; the emergency management departments are usually small and rely on volunteers to play essential functions within their response. Another common thing I see is people turning the blind eye toward the fact that they will at some time face a disaster so big that they will need to ask for outside help. Two of the few countries that handle this well are New Zealand and Australia, which incorporated processes for asking for international assistance into their disaster response plans.

A good friend of mine who works for the UN once held a lecture for a group of national emergency managers and first responders called “Are we too proud to ask for help?” There he pointed out to each and every country a simple scenario that might happen to it causing its national response system to overload, yet none of these countries had incorporated external assistance into their national response plans.

What are some key concepts that you have found invaluable for responding to international disasters?

One of the key things I have learned is never underestimate the ability of the local people to deal with the disaster. We often think that developing countries need our expertise and help to get through a disaster. We often forget that we should support the local emergency management capacity instead of replacing it or “taking it over.” The best missions I have been on are the ones where the international community comes in with a support mindset.

Another important thing to keep in mind is cultural differences. What works in one country may not work in the affected country. Be open to different ways of dealing with things and being confronted with cultural differences.

You and Iceland SAR responded to the earthquake in Haiti. The next series of questions are related to that event.  What was different about the Haiti response compared to other disasters you have responded to?

The Haiti earthquake was by far the largest disaster my team had responded to. The scale of the destruction, the number of victims and the overall humanitarian situation was much worse than we expected when we landed.

The Iceland SAR team was able to get on the ground very early in the disaster.  How were you able to get into the country so quickly?

There were a number of factors getting us there quickly. First was that we activated our response mechanism within 30 minutes of the earthquake occurring. We also reached out very quickly to Icelandair, the national airline of Iceland, and found out that it might have a plane available for us. Next was that our Ministry for Foreign Affairs worked in overdrive throughout the night. They took a decision very early to offer our team as assistance. They also worked their diplomatic network to reach someone from the Haitian government to get an acceptance of that offer.

At the same time the team was getting ready and packing all the equipment. One thing to keep in mind is that Haiti is only eight hours flying time from Iceland if flown directly (due to the curvature of the Earth). Since eight hours is very close to the range limit of the 757 plane we flew, the decision was made to stop and refuel in Boston on the way. The pilot then flew down to Haiti not knowing if the airport was open and without having a formal landing permission there. Luckily the tower answered and granted him permission to land when we were within radio reach.

Once on the ground what was the “command structure,” for lack of a better term, for determining which team was to deploy to which part of the city or country?  With so many collapsed buildings, how do you determine which one to search?

We work within the coordination structure that the UN sets up around these kinds of disasters. That means that the first team arriving sets up a reception center for the other teams coming after them. This task was taken on by the Virginia Task Force 1 team from Fairfax County, which landed 10 minutes after us. Our task was then to assist the UN in setting up an on-scene operations and coordination center.

After driving through the town that first evening we made the decision along with the UN to run the operation out of the airport, where we had found a large enough location to house both the coordination center as well as base camps for all the incoming teams.

From the coordination center, teams would get assigned tasks in the morning and then every evening team leaders would report back the results of that day’s work. This coordination mechanism is something we practice and train around so every international team is supposed to know how to operate within it. Within the coordination center, there was a large group of people from the UN, [nongovernmental organizations,] like MapAction and Telecom Sans Frontiers, as well as liaison officers from various USAR teams that took care of all the coordination work.

You are familiar with the FEMA-sponsored Urban Search and Rescue Teams structure and equipment. How is your team configured in comparison?

Within the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group community we have established a set of guidelines for what capabilities a team must have to be able to call itself an internationally classified team. Within that system, we are defined as being as a medium team. This means that we have technical search capabilities (cameras and listening devices), but we don’t have search dogs (mainly due to historical quarantine reasons). Our team is composed of 33 to 37 rescuers, depending on the type of mission we are going to. As part of our team, we have people who are specially trained to act as liaison officers into the international coordination mechanisms described above. From an equipment standpoint, we have most of the same equipment a FEMA team would have. The main difference is that half of the equipment we take with us on a mission is water and food, because we need to be self-sufficient for at least a 10-day mission.

Describe the successes and perhaps the challenges, even the failures, you experienced in responding to the Haiti earthquake.

Overall we felt this mission was a success for our team. We saved three lives and searched through multiple other buildings. We managed not only to focus on the USAR part, but also provide valuable information back to the international community about the humanitarian situation in the areas we visited. We learned many things from this mission and there are certainly things we will do differently, but for us the main thing is that we managed to help the people of Haiti in their time of need and returned everyone home safely without any injuries.

You have a strong technology background. What role do you see technology playing in the future in the disaster-emergency management realm?

Technology is playing an increasing role in the area of disaster-emergency management. It is opening up possibilities that did not exist earlier. An example of this was during the Haiti earthquake, when at midnight we got information that we were going to the town of Leogane at 6 a.m. the following morning. We contacted our headquarters back in Iceland, which had a team working on researching everything they could find out about Leogane remotely via the Internet. When we woke up at 5 a.m., we had an information package waiting for us in our e-mail inbox, with positions and pictures of all major buildings in the town as well as other background information. This kind of “back-office” support in planning the following day is something many teams did not utilize. A few years back this would have been impossible because of lack of connectivity.

Another example of how technology played a new and interesting role during the Haiti earthquake is that when our team was working in Hotel Montana, where many of the international staff in Haiti lived, we were contacted by relatives of the people missing via Facebook. The whole day we worked there we provided information back to the relatives about the work being done and they in return provided us with information about their missing relatives, where they had been staying, etc. This direct link of communication to people some thousands of kilometers away was new to us. Teams that worked in the hotel after us kept this contact going.

I believe we will see a large growth in the use of technology within our sector, especially as it relates to information management, situational awareness and connections with the citizens. Those are all areas social media and geospatial tools will provide revolutionary breakthroughs in the way we do our work as emergency managers.

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

Platforms & Programs