UK assistance team heading for Haiti

A team of specially trained firefighters from West Sussex were among those preparing to fly out to help rescue victims of the Haiti earthquake today.

They are to be joined by doctors and medical staff as part of the UK International Search and Rescue response, along with colleagues from five other fire and rescue services from around the country.

They hope to depart on a flight from Gatwick Airport being organised by the Department for International Development (DFID) as soon as weather conditions allow.

The team is equipped to respond to disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and collapsed buildings at home or abroad.

Members of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service's Technical Rescue Unit were also sent to help out in the aftermath of the Indonesian earthquake last October.

Their equipment is used to locate trapped casualties and remove them to safety using cutting and shoring up techniques.

A spokesman said the duration of the humanitarian mission is unknown but could last up to 14 days.

The other fire and rescue services going to Haiti are Kent, West Midlands, Manchester, Lincolnshire and Lancashire.

Kent Fire and Rescue Service assistant director of community safety, Steve Griffiths, said: "Our firefighters are currently joining teams from other fire and rescue services while equipment is also being assembled in readiness to fly out to Haiti.

"Kent's specially trained search and rescue firefighters were involved in international duties in October last year when they deployed to Padang in Indonesia after an earthquake.

"We are pleased that their experience and extensive training may be used again to support the response effort and we are proud of the dedication and professionalism that they display at any incident they are called upon to attend."

France, Mexico, Venezuela and Taiwan have also pledged to send aid teams.

The international Red Cross and other aid groups say they are preparing a major disaster relief effort in Haiti after a powerful earthquake struck the capital.

ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno says the agency is preparing to send a relief team from Geneva to help hospitals deal with casualties caused by "massive destruction in all the main neighborhoods of the city."

Schorno said Wednesday that Haitian Red Cross staff are completely overwhelmed and that there is little or no coordinated aid effort at this point. He said there is "very little information about the scale of the disaster."

Oxfam said in a statement posted on its website that it was "poised to respond" to the earthquake.

Jane Cocking, humanitarian director of Oxfam, said: "At this stage it is too early to tell the severity of the earthquake in Haiti, but the early signs are not good, with communications down across the country.

"Oxfam has its emergency response team for Latin America based in Haiti so we are well-prepared, with a public health, water and sanitation team in Port-au-Prince ready to respond.

"We also have emergency supplies in Panama that we are preparing to send in as soon as possible."

She added: "Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, where 85% of people already live in poverty. Given the desperate needs that people face on a day-to-day basis, this earthquake is grim news for the poor people of Haiti."

Kristie van de Wetering, a former Oxfam employee still based in Port-au-Prince, said in a statement on the Oxfam website: "There is a blanket of dust rising from the valley south of the capital.

"We can hear people calling for help from every corner. The aftershocks are ongoing and making people very nervous."