NFCC Chair reflects on the UKISAR deployment to Japan


Today marks the 10th anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. NFCC Chair Roy Wilsher led the UKISAR deployment to assist the relief effort. 

Roy recollects the deployment and the experiences he and the 67-strong team had during their time in Japan.


It is hard to believe that we have reached the tenth anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated north eastern Japan.

On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced the strongest earthquake in its recorded history. Beginning with the earthquake off the coast of Honshu, it led to a series of large tsunami waves. The disaster claimed the lives of more than 15,000 people with many more unaccounted for and it displaced around half a million people from their homes. It also caused the meltdown of three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi power station; the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. It became the most costly natural disaster in history, costing more than $200 billion.

Similar to millions of others, when I saw the television footage on that fateful morning it was obvious that I was watching a disaster of immense proportions. Japan's early warning systems meant that TV cameras were in place and filming as the tsunami struck.  It was a clear reminder of the Indonesian Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.

I can recall very clearly a conversation with my wife where I said it was highly likely we would be deploying a sizable UK Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) response to Japan and I would be joining them.

At the time of the disaster, as well as being Chief Fire Officer in Hertfordshire I was the director of Operations for the Chief Fire Officers Association. This role included being a strategic lead for UK International Search and Rescue (UKISAR), and I was soon preparing to help lead a deployment of a 63-strong ‘heavy’ team to Japan, made up of FRS staff from eight services across the country, joined by medics and search dogs.

We were to play a key role in both the search and rescue - and sadly, search and recovery - of people. 

International Search and Rescue

It quickly became clear the earthquake and resulting tsunami were on such a scale that even a country as well-rehearsed in civil defence as Japan would need assistance.

A strategic lead role was now key for UKISAR deployments, liaising with the British embassy in the country, DiFD and government in the UK; preparations were underway while we awaited the official request for assistance from Japan.

The previous year, I was the director for Exercise Orion, a disaster simulation exercise under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, which we based on a fictitious multi-site earthquake in the UK. Held across a number of sites, it included rescue teams from seven countries. This tested EUCP and UN response and was incredibly valuable in Japan, particularly as we exercised central command, base of operations, convoy, communications and search procedures, entering a disaster area and working with the local emergency management authority.

UKISAR is always deployed as an official UK Government Team and meets UN International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) guidelines for a ‘heavy rescue team’. As you may expect, this includes specialist roles for management, command, logistics, base of operations, medical and many other areas.

How the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) deploys

I often get asked why the UK FRS deploys to some international disasters and not others. In the simplest of terms, there has to be a request for support from the affected country’s government to the UK government. This request then goes to various government departments, before ministerial and government approval is given for the deployment to take place.

UKISAR is formed from 18 UK FRSs and is on permanent standby to mobilise and assist when requested by disaster-affected countries. It is a major part of the NFCC’s National Resilience work and responds primarily to overseas urban search and rescue emergencies on behalf of the UK government (although a response was also provided for major flooding in the Balkans a few years back).

The team was dispatched following a direct request from the Japanese authorities, although the UK government had already made it clear we were ready to respond. The British Government team - which joined the international relief effort - included UK FRS search and rescue specialists, rescue dogs and a medical support team.

It is a very humbling experience to land in a country which has seen such wide-spread destruction, to its infrastructure, environment and communities. We were there to offer assistance and to reduce pressure on local teams, to help reduce the impact of the disaster, assist with search and rescue, support others, offer public reassurance and do our duty to the best of our abilities and my role was to act as strategic lead.

The deployment

Initially the team were due to fly from Gatwick, but due to air space and charter plane availability this changed to Manchester.  At 08.30 on Saturday March 12th – a day after the earthquake - we received the official order to mobilise and I got the first train I could from London to Manchester.

There were some particular challenges for our deployment to Japan, because much of the UKISAR equipment was still in transit from New Zealand, where UKISAR had deployed in response to the Christchurch earthquake the previous month. As I would expect, the FRS’s resourcefulness came into play and sufficient equipment was gathered for departure. In this instance we travelled on an old chartered 767 airplane that was so old it still had ashtrays in the arms of the chairs.

We made a brief refuelling stop on the runway in Seoul before we flew to the US Air Force base at Misawa in northern Japan, where we passed through immigration and underwent a brief health check in a large aircraft hangar. 

Any UKISAR team, like all UN approved teams, is self-sufficient upon arrival. This is of vital importance; we are there to help, not hinder. The team provides its own food, water, shelter, sanitation, communications and all necessary equipment to undertake search and rescue operations for ten to fourteen days. It is essential no additional burden is placed upon a country already suffering demands on its resources following a sudden onset disaster.

All UKISAR staff are trained to use specialist equipment and for this deployment we took 11 tonnes of equipment, meaning the team had the ability and capacity to lift, cut and remove concrete and rubble from collapsed structures.  The logistics alone, particularly loading and unloading for transportation is a particular speciality.

Other equipment included sophisticated technology for finding casualties, such as specialised cameras and listening devices, tools to penetrate reinforced concrete and metal to gain access to victims, and shoring equipment to maintain a safe working position during rescue and recovery operations.


On arrival, the UKISAR team met with two other ISAR teams from the USA - Los Angeles County and Fairfax Virginia. We were joined by officials from US Aid and a colleague from DiFD who would manage financial and other issues we might face.  Together our role was to help fill in any immediate gaps in disaster response, along with teams from across the world until Japanese authorities were able to take over.

Japan is known for its efficient and effective civil defences and fire services; they are very experienced in responding to natural disasters. However, I can honestly say that this disaster was on a scale I – and UKISAR - had never seen before. One of the first thoughts I had, as we saw street after street, district after district, town after town of devastation, was ‘where do we begin and how do you start the return to normality?’. It was the start of seven days of intensive work and support; we searched from first light until dusk every day we were there.

It is an experience I know I will never forget; I also know this would be echoed by everyone who played a part on this team and helped contribute to the vital work carried out.

Roy Wilsher

After a brief overnight stay at the air base we joined the two US rescue teams and American air force colleagues in a 200 personnel convoy.  Travelling in vehicles supplied by the US Air Force we drove the 260KM to Ofunato, the town that had been designated to us for search and rescue.  It was humbling to see the Japanese people line the streets as we drove past, many in tears but waving and bowing in welcome as we passed by.

On arrival at Ofunato we were directed to a school sports hall that was built to withstand earthquakes and set about unloading the tonnes of equipment and food and establishing our base camp.  That evening, I travelled with our command team to meet the local emergency response management team to establish the local situation and allocate our designated search areas. We stayed in that sports hall for 6 nights and it was there that we felt our largest aftershock, of which there were many, this particular one measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, a major earthquake in itself. Fortunately, the building did its job in withstanding the shock, but it is most disconcerting for someone from the UK to feel the ground move under you in that way.

We organised ourselves in the sports hall with everyone finding a place they could bed down.  That’s where deployment envy started as the British team looked on to the US teams’ camp beds as we tried to make ourselves comfortable on the floor. Another difference between the British & the US teams were the food provisions, the British stew and pasta packs had more taste, but the American provisions include chewing gum and cookies. Trading items became a common pastime.

The search

The next day we got down to the serious work of search and rescue. The UKISAR team was made up of firefighters and officers from: Cheshire; Greater Manchester; Hampshire; Kent; Lancashire; Lincolnshire; West Sussex; the West Midlands; and Mid and West Wales FRSs.

We were accompanied by two search dogs and a four person medical team.  West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service provided the logistical support for the UK International Search & Rescue Team (UKISART) and two of their personnel sent to Japan had only just returned from the New Zealand earthquake. Hampshire had the base of operations expertise and West Midlands supported the command team with Sean Moore from West Midlands and Peter Stephenson from Greater Manchester as the two team leaders.

Before starting work we met the local emergency management authority at a fire station on the edge of Ofunato and planned the search areas for the UK and US heavy teams plus a light team of 12 firefighters from China.

Having designated the planned search areas, we accompanied the US teams into town, we were also joined by the small team of 12 from China; a multi-national effort.  Travelling into the more built-up area we saw the high-water mark but also saw the true level of the utter devastation caused by the tsunami. We started searching our zone, checking buildings and marking them in the agreed international search methodology of date, team and whether anyone was found alive or deceased.

The disaster zone had numerous large buildings which were damaged but still standing, which meant there could be survivors. At this stage of the operation search dogs are highly effective at detecting signs of life over the large areas involved.  

If there were any signs of life, the team would concentrate their efforts in these areas with specialist tools that can penetrate reinforced concrete and metal to gain access to victims. We also used shoring equipment which provides temporary support and stability to a structure.

Coordination teams in the UK work closely with the team on the ground, providing information about weather conditions, any extra hazards like nuclear plants, and updates from all the other international teams’ activities.  Unfortunately, communications with the UK were almost impossible as all the systems in that part of Japan had been damaged.  We were restricted to a single satellite phone, others were still in transit from New Zealand, and the odd email that would get through the system.  One consequence of this was we were not fully briefed on the extent of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, the explosion happened when we were in the air.  However, we were prepared through carrying radiation reading devices, dosimeters and survey metres.

We didn’t have any direct contact with our families for three days, although the UK government was providing them with information that we were safe.  I vividly remember the moment when communications returned, we were on a coach returning from our third day of searching when people’s phones started to ping and vibrate.  We stopped the coach so people could ring home, my wife’s first reaction was that I had to come home immediately considering the nuclear disaster. 

We were 80km north of Fukushima, which was another disaster area, but the British press had painted a picture of a complete disaster that would affect everyone in Japan at the time.  We each wore dosimeters when operating in the open to check our radiation dosage, but I must say the fact it snowed whilst we were there and the prospect of nuclear fallout did make us think.

We spent three days searching Ofunato, before moving on to search for two days in Kamaishi - where tens of thousands were also missing. Using our specialist skills and search dogs we continued to spend all day searching buildings, vehicles and open ground.  The temperature had dropped considerably and snow fell to cover the search areas.  Safety of the search teams was also a priority and we knew that tsunami warning devices had been damaged so that was yet another risk to be aware of.

The earthquake and the tsunami had left a trail of devastation across a wide area of north-eastern Japan. Despite an extensive search of both towns and their surrounding areas, sadly no survivors were found.  We did, however recover bodies and following cultural understanding laid those and their belongings in a certain manner for body recovery teams to collect.

Whilst in Kamaishi one of the search and rescue dogs suffered a minor injury which required several stitches, but he was soon declared fit to return to work. The dogs are a vital part of our relief effort and as such, are treated as one of the team, carrying out work which is as important as anyone else.    Having searched for some time and considering the force and temperature of the water plus the freezing air temperature and snow we understood the mission was now search and recovery, a sad realisation.  As a result, we needed to assess what our role was within that, how the Japanese authorities were responding and whether we were still required.  During these times local people would approach us with pictures of their loved ones and ask whether we had found them.  One particular memory of mine was seeing walls of notices posted to try to find family and friends, a scene made famous in the aftermath of 9/11 but seen clearly in Japan as well.

We often came across queues of residents waiting for food and water.  On one occasion we shared our rations, the sweets and chocolate supplied by American colleagues, with local children.  Many years later at the Japanese embassy I met a father who had been there that day when we shared the food and was yet again humbled by how much the local people appreciated that gesture.

Despite full and tiring days of searching Ofunato and Kamaishi, no survivors had been found. I had gone on the search missions with the teams every day, but on the last day I took the role of forward commander.  It was in this role that I noticed a small elderly lady turn up to our search area and was about to set out over the rubble by herself.  I, with our interpreter, a civil servant from the agriculture department in Tokyo, managed to intercept the lady and ask what was happening.  She had seen her daughter swept away by the flood waters just after they had taken some treasured family belongings to a Shinto temple in the hills.  She was determined to find the box.  We took a full description and a small detachment from our team went out to search.  They found the box, including family photos and were able to bring a small piece of comfort to one elderly mother at a time of distress and sorrow.

As a result of the time that had lapsed and the deteriorating conditions, plus the arrival of significant search and rescue resources from across Japan, including one convoy of fire engines and firefighters from Tokyo, 500km to the south.  Discussions between our UK Team, our US counterparts and the Japanese disaster authorities resulted in the difficult decision to start to withdraw from the country.

Returning home and reflections

On returning to the UK, Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, said how proud he was of the work of the UK Fire and Rescue team. “Sadly, the chance of them finding further survivors is now extremely low and so their specialist skills are no longer necessary. We have therefore agreed with the Japanese authorities that we will withdraw our team.

"I am proud that despite very difficult conditions, the UK Fire and Rescue service's dedication and professionalism was able to help Japan in its hour of need."

Stephen O'Brien, International Development Minister, further praised the International Search and Rescue Team for their courage and professionalism. He said: "people should be proud of the team's professionalism, dedication and courage. Through their vital work, Britain was at the forefront of assisting Japan in the aftermath of this terrible disaster.

"Despite cold, hard conditions the ISAR team worked relentlessly to search for survivors in the utter devastation of the earthquake and tsunami, providing much needed relief Japan's own exhausted disaster teams."

As well as the magnitude of the disaster, we were faced with considerable challenges, including heavy snow and falling temperatures, meaning the flood water was incredibly high and cold. This reduced the likelihood of finding survivors, shifting the focus to recovery.

As you would expect, this was harrowing and hard work, despite firefighters experience in dealing with victims’ bodies. We also had to ensure we were following protocols when dealing with the deceased. This included how to lay out a body - with arms in particular positions and shoes placed at the side of the person - as a mark of respect. It is essential these cultural norms are not only recognised but abided by.

Sensitivity was essential to ensure everyone knew we were there to help. We also had to make sure communities knew the world had not forgotten about them. People had lost entire families, their homes and their livelihoods; reassurance and empathy were a key part of our time there.

 There was also the added issue of increased radiation levels due the nuclear power station incident. The team were monitored closely as we carried out our work. All these elements, combined with the intensity of the work, once again demonstrated why the UK FRS is amongst the best in the world; getting involved, making a difference and getting the job done under difficult circumstances.

Members of the International Search and Rescue Team were rightly praised for their professionalism, dedication and courage on their return from Japan. I cannot put into words how proud I was to not only lead this team of dedicated professionals, but also to be part of it.

There are some images I will never forget; the scale of the disaster, a trawler weighing hundreds of tonnes sitting in a town square, vehicles wrapped around bridges and on top of multi-storey buildings.  I was also struck though by images of attempts at clearing and bringing a return to order in the wake of such a terrible disaster, such as dead fish that had been placed in orderly piles.

On the first anniversary of the disaster I was privileged to be able to give a speech at the Japanese embassy whilst accompanied by members of UKISAR. We were invited so the Japanese could show their appreciation.  A year later, in 2013 I was again invited to the embassy to be presented to the Emperor who was in the UK for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. 

On arrival I was taken to a side room with my wife where we found ourselves with people I would recognise as celebrities, all of whom we discovered had a connection or bond with Japan. These included Lord Howard, Jonathon Ross, the designer Paul Smith, and, most striking of all to me, as a keen football fan, Sir Bobby Charlton.

Before being presented to the Emperor we tried to clarify the protocol with the embassy staff how you should greet an Emperor.  We could not get a straight answer as everyone was working so hard to get things right.  “Don’t worry”, I told my wife, “just watch what everyone else does”.  It was only when we were taken to the main hall that I realised I was to be presented first!  Fortunately, as I approached the emperor put out his hand for a handshake, so with that and a bow of my head, all went well and it was ultimately a great honour to meet the Emperor and his wife, the Empress.

Return to Japan

I always said I would revisit Japan and the areas we worked in. This was not only to see how the recovery work had progressed, but I felt it was important to go back and see how people had rebuilt their lives.

Finally, having secured tickets to the Rugby World Cup I returned to Japan in 2019 with my family.  I was delighted to hear that one of the venues that hosted two games was a new stadium in Kamaishi, which showed the extent of the recovery. Unfortunately, the travel logistics meant I was unable to return to that area in 2019, but I am determined to on my next visit.

The one thing that was brought home to me whilst there was the natural phenomenon that the Japanese people live with daily.  During a visit to Hiroshima we were woken by a small earthquake measuring at 5.6 on the Richter Scale, one of hundreds the country has each year.  Then whilst in Tokyo the city was hit by one of the largest typhoons they have ever seen, which cancelled the France v England game amongst others and actually made our 37-storey hotel sway from side to side, resulting in us descending to the lobby where we could disconcertingly hear the steel joists grinding against each other.  It showed why Japan is so prepared for natural disaster but also show just how devastating the tsunami in was.

While it was a stark reminder of the devastation the country had faced, there was also hope. To see how resilient people are, how communities had rebuilt and regrouped was a very moving experience, all whilst knowing this was something which will remain at the forefront of people’s minds for generations.

It is an experience I know I will never forget; I also know this would be echoed by everyone who played a part on this team and helped contribute to the vital work carried out."

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