Balikatan 2017: PH, US troops conduct search and rescue exercises

Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 12 2017 07:14 PM

Balikatan 2017 highlights humanitarian assistance & disaster response as well as counter-terrorism operations. Photo by Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News.

Troops from the Philippine and United States Army conducted urban search and rescue exercises in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija Friday, as part of humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) training for Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises 2017.

Simulating a disaster in the city, the two armies practiced search and extraction techniques for various scenarios. Some trained in building rescue, where a wounded individual needed to be rapelled down to safer ground. The troops then trained in the extraction of an injured person from a lower elevation, say a cliff or crevice.

Other troops trained in the extraction of the wounded from very confined spaces, using a specialized stretcher from the Hawaii national guard, and a plastic tube simulator through which the wounded person was pulled.

There were others who trained in building fast but sturdy support beams for a building in near-collapse, intended to keep victims and rescuers safe while the rescue is ongoing.

Captain Elmeterio Armada, team lead of the Philippine army's search and rescue contingent, said these trainings were useful as the Philippines prepared for "the Big One," or the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that may hit Metro Manila and provinces along the West Valley Fault. 

The Philippine and US forces also exchanged notes on the rescue symbols they used. US Army specialist instructor Manuel Soco said this was necessary so American and Philippine troops would understand these symbols should the two sides end up working together in a real rescue scenario.

The US is among nations that readily sends troops to the Philippines to aid search, rescue and retrieval operations in disasters, notably in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.

Military observers from the United Kingdom, South Korea, Singapore, Brunei, East Timor, and Thailand also came to watch the drills.

Colonel Mike Page of the UK Royal Marines said the UK does not train much in HADR because they don’t experience natural calamities often. But observing exercises like these, he said, allows them to see how they could help another country should a disaster strike elsewhere.

Page also said the counter-terrorism exercises were crucial to observe, especially given terror attacks in the UK of late.

Counter-terrorism was the second theme of Balikatan 2017. These drills were not open to the public.

This morning, troops were taught how to clean hazmat suits after exposure to unknown and potentially dangerous chemicals. They had just come from a counter-terrorism exercise where a terrorist-held laboratory was breached, and they had to take samples of the chemicals that the terrorists had left behind.

Balikatan will run until October 19 with upcoming exercises such as island evacuations and civil military assistance from the sea.