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Disaster Risk Reduction

Rough Riders

The Shizuoka off-road motorbike team’s disaster challenge

The main tasks of the thirty-four members of the Shizuoka off-road motorbike team known as SCOUT (Shizuoka City Off-Road Utility Team) are to survey conditions and collect and disseminate information quickly and effectively amid the rubble when disaster strikes. All of SCOUT’s members are regular Shizuoka government staff personnel, not police or firefighters, which makes the team even more unusual.

“Everyone is shocked. That’s why SCOUT is such a unique initiative,” beams Haruyuki Yasumoto, founder of the team and senior member of the disaster planning department on Shizuoka City’s crisis management team.

Shizuoka has long been considered a high-probability ground zero for a major Tōkai earthquake—a series of severe quakes in Japan’s Tōkai region that occur every 100 to 150 years—so its people and municipal government have a history of disaster preparations. SCOUT, however, was formed after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995. “The Tōkai quake’s going to happen someday, so get out there and learn!” ordered Yasumoto’s superiors. Though he was an employee in the census division at the time, his previous experience as a member of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force a key factor in the decision to send Yasumoto to the disaster area.
Yasumoto purses his lips as he asserts that the six months after the quake were a “life-changing experience.” He lived in a tent at the disaster site while he worked with other local government officials dispatched to the area. As temporary officials of the Kobe municipal government, they commuted back and forth to shelters in areas where it was difficult to rebuild. Yasumoto saw a great number of people in need of medical treatment, while at the same time the injured weren’t being taken out of the area because information wasn’t getting to the citizenry. Meanwhile, area hospitals had extra staff on hand, and local government personnel ready to be mobilized to help local citizens were, due to a lack of information, just standing around.

“People were cut off from communications and traffic, and vehicles would turn back because of the mountains of rubble, so resources and information weren’t getting through,” Yasumoto explains. “At the time, 50-cc bikes and scooters were the most mobile form of transportation.”
When he returned to Shizuoka and realized that 80 percent of the city was mountainous terrain, Yasumoto reported that the most effective information-gathering tool in a time of disaster would be a motorbike. Thus Japan’s first government-run off-road motorbike team was founded in 1996, and Yasumoto—who had been transferred to the disaster prevention division—became SCOUT's chief.

From the start, Yasumoto had a vision for SCOUT: to capitalize on Shizuoka’s thriving motorbike industry, off-road bikes from Yamaha and trial bikes from Honda that were built for sloping ground were deployed. He also recognized that if the team didn’t have genuine training, it wouldn’t be able to help the populace effectively in a disaster. So the bike team actually went to a Japan Self-Defense Force base for strict training on par with that received by rangers, learning not just about information collecting and motorbike operation skills but self-discipline and control. “The twenty-four original members who remained with the team have a high degree of professionalism, and there are strong ties between them. Even after two decades, they haven’t quit,” Yasumoto says with a laugh.

SCOUT members study continuously to hone their technological skills, and the team now has its own eight-ton support truck. SCOUT was dispatched to Sendai after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, where they provided onsite support and proved that motorbikes are the most efficient means of rapidly gathering information on damage conditions and other issues in the midst of a disaster.

“When a disaster hits, there’s a time limit for the local government, after which the survival rate for victims reportedly drops precipitously,” Yasumoto asserts. “Within the first seventy-two hours, decisions have to be made about what measures will be taken. It’s the government’s duty to be proactive, to go out there and get accurate information themselves.” After seeing the results in Shizuoka, other local governments have started forming their own bike teams—a real testament to the effectiveness and mobility of motorbikes in disasters.


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