Urban Search and Rescue Insights

1-14-2010 9-46-14 PMUrban search-and-rescue (US&R) involves the location, rescue (extrication), and initial medical stabilization of victims trapped in confined spaces. Structural collapse is most often the cause of victims being trapped, but victims may also be trapped in transportation accidents, mines and collapsed trenches. Urban search-and-rescue is considered a “multi-hazard” discipline, as it may be needed for a variety of emergencies or disasters, including earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, storms and tornadoes, floods, dam failures, technological accidents, terrorist activities, and hazardous materials releases. The events may be slow in developing, as in the case of hurricanes, or sudden, as in the case of earthquakes.

In the event of a National disater of event, FEMA deploys the three closest task forces within six hours of notification, and additional teams as necessary. The role of these task forces is to support state and local emergency responders’ efforts to locate victims and manage recovery operations. Each task force consists of two 31-person teams, four canines, and a comprehensive equipment cache. US&R task force members work in four areas of specialization: search, to find victims trapped after a disaster; rescue, which includes safely digging victims out of tons of collapsed concrete and metal; technical, made up of structural specialists who make rescues safe for the rescuers; and medical, which cares for the victims before and after a rescue.

In addition to search-and-rescue support, FEMA provides hands-on training in search-and-rescue techniques and equipment, technical assistance to local communities, and in some cases federal grants to help communities better prepare for urban search-and-rescue operations. The bottom line in urban search-and-rescue – someday lives may be saved because of the skills these rescuers gain. These first responders consistently go to the front lines when America needs them most. We should be proud to have them as a part of our community. Not only are these first responders a national resource that can be deployed to a major disaster or structural collapse anywhere in the country. They are also the local firefighters and paramedics who answer when you call 911 at home in your local community.

National Response Plan: Under the National Response Plan, US&R teams will provide urban search and rescue and life-saving assistance following major domestic incidents.

US&R History

In the early 1980s, the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue and Metro-Dade County Fire Department created elite search-and-rescue (US&R) teams trained for rescue operations in collapsed buildings. Working with the United States State Department and Office of Foreign Disaster Aid, these teams provided vital search-and-rescue support for catastrophic earthquakes in Mexico City, the Philippines and Armenia. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established the National Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Response System in 1989 as a framework for structuring local emergency services personnel into integrated disaster response task forces. In 1991, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) incorporated this concept into the Federal Response Plan (now the National Response Plan), sponsoring 25 national urban search-and-rescue task forces. Events such as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, the Northridge earthquake, the Kansas grain elevator explosion in 1998 and earthquakes in Turkey and Greece in 1999 underscore the need for highly skilled teams to rescue trapped victims.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 thrust FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) teams into the spotlight. Their important work transfixed a world and brought a surge of gratitude and support. Today there are 28 national task forces staffed and equipped to conduct round-the-clock search-and-rescue operations following earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, aircraft accidents, hazardous materials spills and catastrophic structure collapses. These task forces, complete with necessary tools and equipment, and required skills and techniques, can be deployed by FEMA for the rescue of victims of structural collapse.

Refer to the FEMA Web Site for expanded information from which this preceding excerpt was posted from.

FEMA USAR Task Force System Team Web sites, HERE

Google Earth Before and After Aerial Images of Haiti Extent of Damage, HERE

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FEMA USAR Task Force Teams


Search and rescue operations in the urban disaster environment require the close interaction of all task force elements (search, rescue, medical and technical personnel) for safe and successful victim extrications. Once one or more entrapped live victims have been located, rescue extrication, coupled with appropriate medical treatment and victim removal operations, must be conducted in an organized and safe manner. This outlines current tactical considerations and general strategies that constitute a foundation for productive rescue operations.  Task force supervisory personnel must tailor the strategy and tactics to fit the general situation and specific problems encountered.

It is incumbent on the Task Force Leader (TFL) and task force supervisory personnel to implement coordinated search tactics and strategy, collect and collate related information, and develop an effective overall rescue plan of action.


Standardized rescue strategy and tactics will promote the following:

  • Effective management and coordination of rescue operations.
  • Better task force resource utilization and coordination.
  • Proper integration of all task force disciplines (i.e., medical, hazardous materials, and structures specialists, etc.) in the rescue operations.
  • The incorporation of assistance from entities outside the task force.
  • Simultaneous, multiple-site rescue operations.
  • Standardize training and increase efficiency within the task force prior to deployment and during mission operation.
  • Increase safety for all task force members involved in rescue operations.
  • Provide around-the-clock (24-hour) operations.
  • Organized and rapid victim extrication.

The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) is the office within USAID responsible for facilitating and coordinating U.S. Government emergency assistance overseas. As part of USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA), OFDA provides humanitarian assistance to save lives, alleviate human suffering, and reduce the social and economic impact of humanitarian emergencies worldwide. USAID Fact Sheet on the Haiti Earthquake, HERE

As reported on January 13th, the USAID reported the following:

USAID/OFDA has deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team (USAID/DART) to Haiti—comprising up to 17 members—and activated a Washington D.C.-based Response Management Team to support the USAID/DART. The USAID/DART will assess humanitarian needs and coordinate assistance with the U.S. Embassy in Port-au- Prince, the international community, and the Government of Haiti (GoH). Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team, and four support staff had arrived in Port-au-Prince. As of 1615 hours local time on January 13, seven members of the USAID/DART, the 72-member Fairfax County composed of approximately 72 personnel, 6 search and rescue canines, and up to 48 tons of rescue equipment, are also deploying to Haiti. USAID/OFDA expects to support up to two additional heavy USAR teams from Florida. USAID/OFDA has also authorized the deployment of a three-person Americas Support Team (AST) to Haiti. The AST, staffed by additional Fairfax County USAR members and funded by USAID/OFDA, will supplement the U.N. Disaster Assessment Country (UNDAC) team in Haiti. In addition, both the Fairfax County and Los Angeles County Fire Departments are seconding staff members to directly support the UNDAC team. Two USAID/OFDA-supported heavy USAR teams from Fairfax County, VA, and Los Angeles County, CA.

Check out the Firegeezer’s latest Updates on Virginia Task Force 1 from Fairfax County Team Deployment,  Here and Dave STATter’s911 coverage update on USAR Team rescue ops in Haiti, HERE


Excerpts taken from the USAR Response Systems Operations Manual

Haiti Collapse Magnitude

The most effective rescue strategy should blend all viable tactical capabilities into a logical plan of operation. The general strategic considerations are outlined as follows:

Rescue Team Composition: A task force rescue team is comprised of four, 6-person rescue squads. Two Rescue Team Managers are assigned to provide continuous supervision for the rescue team. A squad is composed of a Rescue Squad Officer and five Rescue Specialists.

Personnel Deployment: One of the most important strategic considerations for the task force supervisory personnel (the Rescue Team Manager in particular) is the deployment of task force personnel at the start of mission operations. When the task force arrives at the assigned location, it may be best to commit all task force personnel to the initial objectives that must be addressed. This would include Base of Operations (BoO) set-up, search and reconnaissance activities, equipment cache set-up, rescue operations, etc. Depending upon the general conditions present, it may be most appropriate to attempt the following deployment guideline:

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As the task force moves into alternating 12-hour operational periods, there should be an overlap of the shifts to allow for briefings and information exchange to promote the continuity of operations. As the operations near the end of the initial 8 to 12-hour time frame, it may be necessary to scale back to handling only one or two simultaneous operations. This reduction in rescue operations is the trade off for allowing sleep rotations for each half of the task force. Deviations from the suggested guideline might be required, depending upon the conditions that are present. There is the possibility that the ongoing size-up and planning information could indicate there being a specific number of viable rescue opportunities that could be accomplished. In that case it may be most appropriate to deploy all task force personnel for a full-scale “blitz” of the planned 24 to 30-hour duration. This would necessitate the full stand down of the task force at the conclusion of this blitz.

Task Force Equipment Cache Management: The overall effectiveness of the task force depends upon the prompt availability of the tools, equipment, and supplies in the task force cache. The organization and management of the cache is important. The equipment cache requires immediate attention once the BoO has been identified.  The cache set-up must be addressed before significant rescue operations can be supported. Rescue personnel must be effectively trained in, and adhere to, all procedures related to equipment issue, tracking, and retrieval, as outlined in the Property Accountability and Resource Tracking System. The limited number of specialized tools may require them to be shared between one or more rescue sites during simultaneous operations. It is incumbent upon the task force Logistics Specialists, in conjunction with the Rescue Team Managers and Squad Officers, to coordinate the sharing and movement of these tools between the rescue sites.

Assistance with Search Activities: It may be necessary to assign additional task force personnel to search operations to identify, assess, and prioritize rescue opportunities.

Rescue Site Management and Coordination: Each rescue work site must have one person in charge to maintain unity of command. The Rescue Squad Officer of each rescue squad is responsible for all activities of the assigned rescue site including safety when a single squad operates alone. At large or complex rescue operations that require the commitment of two or more rescue squads to a single operation, the Rescue Team Manager may assume command or assign one of the Rescue Squad Officers to be in charge of the site. A Safety Officer should be identified at each rescue site.

Rescue Site Communications: Communication is fundamental to effective operation of the task force.  The task force should be provided with radio channels for command and control, logistics, and tactical operations as needed.

Rescue Site Engagement/Disengagement: A standardized method of engaging and disengaging a rescue site should be followed.


Rescue Integration in Search Activities: Task force rescue personnel may be required to assist the canine and technical search personnel with search and reconnaissance activities. This may include safety assessments at collapse sites, gaining access to voids and other difficult areas, deploying equipment, and conducting physical search operations. Individual void inspections, or combined listening operations may require shoring and stabilization prior to entry. Rescue personnel may be used to staff search and reconnaissance teams. There are specific protocols for Search Strategy and Tactics and Structure Triage, Assessment, and Marking System. These combined operations would be coordinated between the Search Team and Rescue Team Managers, the Rescue Squad Officers, or other appropriate task force personnel.

Rescue Site Management and Coordination: Size-up and site control activities should be completed before rescue operations begin.Once the size-up is completed and the plan of action developed, a short team briefing should be conducted to include safety considerations, structural concerns, hazard identification, and emergency signaling and evacuation procedures. As rescue opportunities are identified, it is important that rescue personnel adhere to a consistent, formalized site management procedure to ensure the safe, effective operation of the rescue squads. The following considerations should be addressed:

  • Hazard assessment and mitigation. This could include removing trip hazards, boards with exposed nails, shutting off utilities, etc.
  • A collapse hazard zone (hot zone) should be established and clearly defined along with the operational work area.
  • All bystanders should be excluded from the operational work area.
  • An equipment assembly area and cutting workstation should be organized at an advantageous location.

Rescue Site Set-Up: In order to ensure safe and effective rescue operations, the area immediately surrounding the selected work site should be secured. A collapse hazard zone is established for the purpose of controlling all access to the immediate area of the collapse that could be impacted by further building collapse, falling debris, or other dangers. The only individuals allowed within this area are authorized personnel involved in search or extrication of victims. The collapse hazard zone will be identified by an X-type cordon of flagging or rope (criss-crossed) as outlined in protocols for Structural Triage, Assessment, and Marking. When establishing the perimeter of the operational work area, the needs of the following activities must be provided for and properly identified:

  • Medical treatment area 
    • Personnel staging area
    • Rescue equipment staging area
    • Cribbing/shoring working area
    • Access/entry routes
    • Security and environmental protection.

Inter-discipline Coordination: As the Rescue Team Managers and Squad Officers focus on the appropriate tactics and procedures related to victim extrication, they may also utilize other task force disciplines in the ongoing operations.

Site/Personnel Safety: Safety of the task force personnel is the single most important consideration during mission operations.  As a minimum, the following considerations should be addressed for rescue operations:

  • The safety of personnel operating around collapsed/compromised structures.
  • Emergency signaling and evacuation procedures. 
  •  Hailing devices shall be used to sound the appropriate signals as follows:
  • Cease Operation/All Quiet 1 long blast (3 seconds)
  •  Evacuate the Area               3 short blasts (1 second each)
  •  Resume Operations             1 long and 1 short blast.
  • Personnel Rest and Rehabilitation (R&R).
  • Critical incident stress debriefing or defusing may be required.
  • Personnel hygiene. Considerations would be the exposure and/or contact with victim body fluids, inhalation or ingestion of dusts and contaminated atmospheres, water, etc., and minor injuries.1-14-2010 9-23-56 PM

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