Operation Nanook prepares soldiers, responders for the worst

A Canadian Forces soldier is almost done drilling through a concrete slab the size of a small window, his only way into a building that has collapsed.

HAINES JUNCTION — A Canadian Forces soldier is almost done drilling through a concrete slab the size of a small window, his only way into a building that has collapsed.

His team has to go in to find and rescue potential victims after an earthquake hit the area.

Nobody was actually injured and the house is safe to walk in, since this is one of the scenarios Canadian Forces troops are working on during Operation Nanook.

The annual military exercise is taking place this year partly in the Haines Junction area.

Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams out of CFB Trenton in Ontario and CFB Comox and Esquimalt in British Columbia are on the ground, along with more than 800 other military and civilian personnel.

The exercise isn’t so much to practise skills as it is to practise working with other agencies.

“Op Nanook is a great chance for multiple government agencies to come out and work together in a natural disaster,” said Glen Cooper, the USAR team leader out of CFB Esquimalt.

“We learn how we can work together to help the general public.”

If a major earthquake were to hit the country, the different USAR teams would come under one command. And working with the local authorities requires a lot of logistics and preparedness.

During the exercise, radios are constantly buzzing as teams exchange information with the main command centre, which oversees all the operations.

On top of the USAR teams, there are local representatives from the Yukon government, Whitehorse city firefighters, and the 12th Armoured Regiment of Canada out of Valcartier, Que., referred to by its French acronym, 12 RBC.

It’s striking how slow an earthquake rescue mission can be.

First the team has to determine whether there are any victims trapped inside the building.

Using a special device, rescuers can listen in from the outside.

“What it does is transmit seismic energy into acoustic (signals),” said Cpl. Mike Cusson, a firefighter by trade. “So you’d be able to hear somebody tapping, calling out for help.”

The device, called a Delsar, can pick up noises as quiet as heavy breathing or water running through a pipe.

Then comes the breaching.

Unlike an action movie, rescuers can’t blast through with a rocket, a grenade or a tank, so they have to drill holes the size of a thumb until they’ve dug out a hole big enough for a person to go through.

“It can be frustrating because it does take time,” said Cpl. Joshua Dwyer, who was deployed in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake there.

“But when you finally get there and see the difference you make and the smiles on people’s faces, it really helps.”

After the Nepal earthquake, Dwyer’s team was dispatched to the outskirts of Kathmandu. He was also flown to remote communities, where his team was the first contact the local population had with rescuers.

“For lots of people in the mountains, they had to travel 100 kilometres to get to the nearest hospital,” he said.

He and a medic rescued a pregnant woman on the side of a mountain who had been waiting for a week and a half for help.

The experience in Nepal taught Dwyer how important it is not to rush in.

Back on the outskirts of Kathmandu, he was clearing debris in an alleyway with bulldozers.

The equipment kept overheating so the soldiers took breaks.

Then a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit — not a tremor, a real earthquake.

“Everybody is running and crying,” Dwyer said. “It was a really bad place to be.”

Only one structure in the entire town came down during that earthquake, crumbling to rubble within feet of Dwyer and his team.

“You could barely stand up, it was shaking so bad,” he said. “It was a really eerie feeling.”

While Dwyer is speaking, the USAR teams have extracted two adults and a child — all mannequins.

A division from 12 RBC, travelling in light armoured Jeeps, pulls up near the house.

Two medics come out and check for vital signs, waiting to hear how the victims will be evacuated.

That is only one of the many exercises troops will have gone through this week.

On Wednesday two diving teams worked on a sunken paddlewheel boat scenario. On Thursday some teams took part in a plane crash scenario.

Operation Nanook wraps up today with the traditional community day, when soldiers meet with area residents. It’s scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Rotary Park.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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