19.08.2020Heroes in action: Petr Svoboda reporting on the mission in Beirut

After the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut in early August, rescue teams from several nations were mobilised to support the search for survivors on site. These included an USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) team from the Czech Republic, which also included the two IRO tested search and rescue dog teams Petr Svoboda with Diego and David Hynek with Darren. Both are active search and rescue dog handlers of the IRO member organisation SIRIUS and dedicated firefighters at Hasičský záchranný sbor ČR (HZS ČR). Meanwhile both are back in the Czech Republic and Petr reports about his experiences during the international mission.

August 5, 2020 will remain in my memory forever. The serious explosion in a warehouse in the port of Beirut the previous day was the predominant topic of discussion among us colleagues at the fire station. A short time later I received a call from the HZS ČR General Directorate asking whether I would be willing to fly to Beirut together with Diego as part of the Czech USAR team. My answer was, without hesitation: "YES". Suddenly everything went very fast and I started to make a packing list in my head to make sure I did not forget anything.

After I packed the necessary equipment, my four-legged partner Diego and I went from Hlučín to a meeting point in Prague, where the whole USAR team met. We were undergoing a medical examination, including a test for the Coronavirus. The equipment, documents and other items required for the trip to the disaster area were inspected. After all necessary checks were completed, we were taken by bus to the airport.

When we arrived at the airport, a veterinarian was waiting for us dog handlers and checked the condition of our dogs before departure. When our four-legged friends also got permission for the journey, we went on to the check-in and finally to the gate. The dogs were visibly restless. They felt a heightened level of adrenalin, nervousness, and excitement in view of the upcoming challenge. The ceremony with the presentation of a report to the Czech Minister of the Interior Jan Hamáček as well as a press conference with invited journalists in front of the waiting plane confirmed to everyone the importance of our mission.

The high temperatures prevailing at the time of departure already gave an indication that it would probably be hot at the site of the operation too. But none of us had expected this real "greenhouse atmosphere". Although we arrived in Beirut late at night, the heat was enormous due to the high humidity. Even when we were standing, our sweat was pouring down.

At Beirut airport we were welcomed by employees of the Czech embassy and representatives of the Lebanese army, which was leading the rescue work at the site of the explosion and in the immediate vicinity. After the army had unloaded our material and equipment from the plane, we were taken to our accommodation.

The next morning there was a meeting of all the newly arrived teams and the search areas were divided by nations. The area assigned to us was first examined by a structural engineer, who identified areas that our team had to avoid due to increased danger of collapse. Due to the prevailing circumstances, with temperatures around 50 °C, rubble, and shards everywhere, careful planning was essential to ensure the safety of all rescue forces and dogs at all times. After appropriate preparation, we started to deploy our dogs to search under the rubble for survivors.

The search work was only allowed to take place during the day and had to be completed before nightfall. One reason for this was probably the protests and riots in the city centre. Thanks to the internet connection in the camp we could always follow the present situation.

After the weekend we could successfully finish our activities in Beirut and return home.

To sum it up, it was an exciting experience for the whole team. I am proud that I was able to support this extraordinary mission together with Diego, and it is great that the Czech Republic was able to send help in such a short time. The whole team has done an excellent job and the ongoing intensive preparations for such missions have paid off. Our dogs have also shown maximum commitment and even slight injuries on their paws have not affected their willingness to work. With their performance they confirmed that they are an irreplaceable part of the team.

Many thanks to all who participated in this international mission.

Petr Svoboda – SIRIUS

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