Response to Beirut explosion: Search and Rescue Assistance in Disasters

Search and Rescue Assistance in Disasters (SARAID) is a UK non-governmental organisation and charity which has 18 years’ experience of mobilising to the world’s worst disasters, namely the Sri Lanka tsunami, Pakistan earthquake, Indonesia earthquake, Bad Reichenhall ice rink collapse, Haiti earthquake, Nepal earthquake, Hurricane Irma and the more recent Beirut explosion.

Lebanon Bound

Following the horrific explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, SARAID offered its support to the Lebanese authorities and through a number of routes within their contacts in Beirut – in particular following years of capacity building projects undertaken by one of its partners, Operation Florian and Fire Aid – our request was accepted and SARAID mobilised on August 6.

SARAID mobilised initially with a team of six USAR technicians, including medics, structural engineers and UN On-site Operations and Coordination Centre (OSOCC) trainers with an initial request from the local authorities to assist with damage assessments and setting up and coordinating the Damage Assessment Coordination Centre (DACC). The DACC principle was first used in the Albanian earthquake late in 2019 and SARAID utilised this methodology to support the municipality and its local professional engineers to provide coordination between the international USAR engineers and the local authority engineers.

The creation of the DACC principles was implemented by two of SARAID engineers in association with the EU Civil Protection mechanism and has four main objectives, namely:

  • Coordination of assessors: efficient operational organisation of damage assessors
  • Legal framework: official system of working including assessing and making-safe of buildings
  • Technical building assessment: a consistent method to decide to evacuate or not to evacuate
  • Data management: efficient system for central storage, analysis and reporting of damage data.

Top: Looking out on the explosion site, Beirut 2020

Left: Overview of the sectors and the international teams that supported the local authorities

Right: The DACC set up and running


Colour coding used as the placarding

Within the Beirut deployment, SARAID engaged with local authorities and engineers to offer the DACC process to support the local response, which was accepted and started to link the local engineers with the international USAR engineers to provide the support from the expertise within country and the international responding expertise. The key early tasks were the sectorisation of city and local agreement for the sectors to be managed through the DACC room and prioritisation of immediate damage need. This provided a single truth of sectors and the priority of assessment need.

It became clear early on that whilst SARAID had ‘boots on the ground’ with its first assessment team, more support was needed and a call went back to the UK operations room to request an additional five members of the team. This included further SARAID USAR engineers and coordinators. This second phase of the SARAID team arrived on the evening of August 8.

The DACC assisted with connecting international USAR engineering expertise from Germany, Netherlands, UK, Czech Republic, France and Switzerland. This made the connection between the international USAR engineering expertise with the professional and dedicated local engineers of Beirut to work in partnership to achieve the four main objectives, and a clear understanding that decisions on building safety and the reporting forms needed to be maintained by the local engineers with advice from the international cadre. The risk critical decisions needed to be maintained at the local level to look after their local community.

The practical role of the DACC within Beirut was to set up the centre within the municipality building of engineering. This in reality was a coordination and meeting room, at which international teams were linked with local engineers, where briefings could take place, and communication with those teams from a safety and procedural aspect could be maintained. This was all undertaken within the safe system of work with the Covid-19 restrictions.

The damage assessments through the DACC provided a coordinated and uniform approach to assessing buildings and provision of a colour coding system to placard buildings related to safety. International engineering standards have also been used and considered for the methodology of the damage assessments. The FEMA P-2055 ‘Post disaster Building Safety Evaluation Guidance’ and Italian standards were very useful and these standards were used within the Beirut deployment.

The centre was co-located within the municipality of engineers office and mapping was available and used to improve the situation awareness and decision making, especially the sectors of the city that were divided as part of the need to provide manageable search and damage assessments and provide a singular ground truth. This methodology mirrors the working of the Urban Search and Rescue Coordination Cell and the Joint Emergency Services Integration Programme running within the UK, ie co-location, improved situation awareness etc.  

The DACC was operational for six days with the support of the international USAR teams and the local authorities and within these six days 580 buildings were assessed by this partnership. As international USAR teams started their demobilisation plans and returning home, the work of the DACC was similarly affected by the demobilisation of these key assets. This is reflected in the management of the DACC with a provision of training workshops with students coming from the local engineers and Lebanese military to develop and handover the DACC process and maintain DACC sustainability.  

The DACC cannot operate in isolation and a key role for the team leader and the management of the DACC is to maintain and forge links within the wider coordination structure. Namely, linking in with the USAR Coordination Cell (UCC), United Nations coordination, including working with the UN Disaster and Coordination team, Humanitarian Cluster system, European Union Civil Protection Team and the main partner in this response being the local authorities as we should not lose sight that it is their communities and their legal response requirements and our role is not to command but to assist and coordinate the international actors.

During the working of the DACC within Beirut it was clear that the role was not just within the recovery phase, as the city outside of the port had limited coverage for urban search and rescue within the UCC function that concentrated on the port area. The role a DACC also provides includes a search and rescue capability when there could be a question mark over the casualty and potential missing persons risk/likelihood within a building that is having a damage assessment visit.

This makes the linkage between local engineering, International USAR technical search and rescue expertise and international USAR dedicated and qualified engineers necessary. Within Beirut this also included a rapid reaction capability to a call out that a building is potentially going to collapse, and there was a number of these call outs some days after the initial blast on the August 4.

This was only the second time that the DACC principle has been used operationally (Albania 2019 and Beirut 2020). The key learning from the post deployment debrief and after action review highlighted a number of recommendations:

  • DACC principles and methodology should be adopted by the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group
  • This to include a suggestion to provide the DACC methodology training and awareness as part of future UCC courses, to further develop the international response to future disasters
  • Creation of a DACC set of guidelines and standard operating procedure
  • Similar to the UK and other international models, recovery should start as soon as response and this provides further synergy to provide the development of UCC
  • Understand the role of USAR engineer and that this has to be a qualified engineer who is academically and vocationally qualified in structural engineering and a working knowledge of urban search and rescue and its key components, and
  • Future USAR and disaster exercises to consider the testing of DACC principles.

SARAID and the team leader wish to pass on their thanks to the international community who again rose to the challenge to support a community in need and a special thank you to the professional and dedicated professionals of the Lebanese authorities, where are thoughts are still with the community of the beautiful city of Beirut.


SARAID is a United Nations recognised search and rescue and disaster response team under the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) and operates at the light urban search and rescue level, with a pending INSARAG classification at light level planned for 2022-2023. SARAID continues to be involved in the work of the INSARAG Light Team working group and now the Light Team Quality Assurance working group, providing increase capability and a holistic response to countries at risk from future disasters.

One area that needs challenging within INSARAG for the future is the need for INSARAG to look at standards outside of the USAR sphere of work and the wider search and rescue needs of future disasters. SARAID have also been a member of the INSARAG Medical working group for a number of years.

SARAID would like dedicate this article to our colleague, friend and medic Simon Woodmore, who also represented SARAID on INSARAG Medical working group and passed away suddenly on September 19, 2020. Our thoughts are with Simon’s family at this time.

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