By Melissa Buckley, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (May 8, 2024) — Two Japanese firefighters are the first international students to graduate from the Fort Leonard Wood Homeland Defense Civil Support Office’s Urban Search and Rescue Course.

Both firefighters work on Camp Zama for the U.S. Army Garrison Japan Fire Department. Masahiro Watanabe is the assistant fire chief and training officer, and Takanori Saito is the fire crew chief.

The 35-day course provides instruction on six disciplines: rope rescue, confined space rescue, trench rescue, structural collapse rescue, vehicle rescue and machinery rescue. The classes are conducted at Training Area 235A, an area containing twin 60-foot towers, wrecked vehicles, simulated building collapses and trenches.

“Students learn the advanced rescue techniques needed in various environments. They can perform rescues in a high-angle situation, a collapse structure, a vehicle or machinery incident, conditions in a confined space, as well as a collapsed trench,” said John Miller, Urban Search and Rescue Training Department chief.

When asked why they wanted to travel to America for the course, Watanabe and Saito had the same answer: earthquakes.

Japan is located across three tectonic plates, making it earthquake-prone, and from April 6 to May 6 this year, there were 218 earthquakes documented by the Japan Meteorological Agency. The strongest, a magnitude 6.9 quake, occurred off the coast of the Ogasawara Islands.

“We have so many earthquakes. On January 1, we had the strongest earthquake to hit mainland Japan since 2011. It was a powerful one, and it caused a tsunami to hit Japan,” Saito said. “This is what we have to be ready for.”

Saito was referring to a 7.5 magnitude earthquake that struck central Japan. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, the quake destroyed buildings, knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes and prompted residents in coastal areas to flee to higher ground.

Saito said the Urban Search and Rescue Course training area at Fort Leonard Wood is unique, and it is hands-on training they couldn’t receive in Japan.

“Japan does not have enough space for this, or cars to practice skills like car extraction,” Saito said. “This course has given me the confidence to apply these lifesaving skills if I need to.”

Watanabe agreed.

“This course is very important for us. If there is a national disaster, we need to be able to stabilize buildings and collapsed housing,” Watanabe said. “I have some search and rescue training, but this course taught us newer, better techniques.”

He said they also learned a lot of new skills.

“We learned how to move large debris, huge pieces of concrete. This was my first opportunity to do this. And I have never had the chance to practice trench rescue. That is a valuable skill to have,” Watanabe said.

Many U.S. military bases in Japan have towers with multiple apartments on each level to house service members and their dependents, according to Watanabe.

“Here we learned how to properly stabilize small houses and huge buildings, like the tall housing towers we have on Camp Zama. They are nine-story, high-rise buildings, filled with families,” Watanabe said.

One of the best parts of the training, according to the firefighters, was getting to know the other students taking the course.

“I don’t speak English well, but the Soldiers and civilian students have helped us. I appreciate all of them supporting us,” Watanabe said.

According to Miller, Saito and Watanabe were impressive students and did an “amazing job.”

“They worked hard, studied for exams, asked questions when they needed clarity, and worked great with all the others in small group training,” Miller said.

Saito and Watanabe’s class graduated April 27. The firefighters are back on Camp Zama where Saito said they plan to “share their new knowledge with the rest of the department.”

Watanabe said he is hopeful other firefighters from their department will be able to take the course in the future.

Takanori Saito (left) and Masahiro Watanabe, in the blue U.S. Army Garrison Japan Fire Department coveralls, learn to stabilize a building with other Urban Search and Rescue Course students at Training Area 235A. The Camp Zama, Japan, firefighters were at Fort Leonard Wood to take the Homeland Defense Civil Support Office’s 35-day Urban Search and Rescue Course. (Photo by Melissa Buckley, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office)














About Fort Leonard Wood

Fort Leonard Wood is a thriving and prosperous installation that has evolved from a small basic training post more than 80 years ago to a premier Army Center of Excellence that trains nearly 80,000 military and civilians each year.

Fort Leonard Wood is home to the U.S Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and three U.S. Army schools: the U.S. Army Engineer School; U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School; and the U.S. Army Military Police School. In addition to training engineer, CBRN and military police specialties for the Army, Fort Leonard Wood also provides gender-integrated in-processing and Basic Combat Training for new Soldiers.

Fort Leonard Wood also hosts and trains with the largest Marine Corps Detachment and Air Force Squadron on any Army installation as well as a large Navy construction detachment.

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