Frequently Asked Questions
Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon recently have thrust OHS/FEMA's Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) program into the spotlight. Their important work brought a surge of gratitude and support, and raised many questions.
Q. What is FEMA's National US&R response system?
A. The US&R Program is a framework for structuring local emergency personnel into an integrated Federal Disaster Response Forces. These Task Forces, complete with necessary tools and equipment, and specialized training and skills, are deployed by FEMA in times of Disaster that could include catastrophic collapse of structures through acts of Nature, Accident and or Terrorism.
Q. How many FEMA US&R teams are there?
A. There are presently 28 teams: Eight from California, Two from Florida, Two from Virginia, and one each from: Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington State.
Q. How are FEMA US&R teams different from other search and rescue teams?
A. FEMA teams organize existing search and rescue capability into a national program that can quickly deploy to an event. They have additional training, and must be able to deploy within six hours and to sustain themselves for 72 hours. They must also have a roster that fills 35 different positions with at least two people for each position. To receive the FEMA certification, an agency or group must be approved and audited for Operational Status by a US&R oversight board that includes leaders in the field along with FEMA officials. One of the difficulties in obtaining the certification is being able to staff a complete roster of at least 80 ready, trained and equipped individuals.
Q. What kind of disciplines make up the 70 positions in each team?
A. The positions fall into roughly four categories: Search and Rescue, Medical, Technical and Logistics.
- Search and Rescue positions include: Engineers with expertise in evaluating structural components and potential for collapse,. Rescue specialists proficient in shoring, bracing, and breaching and lifting concrete, Search Specialists use special Infared and Thermal Imaging cameras and listening devices. K-9 Search Teams employ trained and certified search dogs
- Medical positions include Physicians, EMTs, Paramedics and nurses who can set up and staff a mobile field hospital.
- Technical positions include WMD hazard materials specialists and communications specialists, among others.
- Logistics positions include overall responsibility of providing anything necessary to complete the mission.
Q. What are the first steps the teams take when they arrive at a site?
A. The FEMA US&R team meets with the field incident commander - the local firefighter or emergency specialist who is in charge of the site. After a general situation update and briefing, some team members set up a base of operations at the site, including tents, equipment and a staging area. Meanwhile, search and rescue specialists and structural engineers inspect the site. They look for major problem areas, likely areas to search, the condition of the collapse and hazardous materials. Also at this time, logistics team members are contacting local vendors to obtain heavy equipment, shoring materials, food, portable toilets and other supplies.
Q. Then what happens?
A. The search and rescue specialists being to gently and carefully move into the structure into areas that are not in imminent danger of collapse to get a better idea of the damage. They will have looked at blueprints of the building to understand its layout and will mark areas that need bracing and areas where victims can be seen. During this preliminary search, if any victim is found alive, the survey halts and stabilization efforts are concentrated there to get the victim out. After this preliminary search, the detailed search begins with dogs, cameras and listening devices. Medical services are given to any victims who are found alive, so they are treated while they are being extricated.
Q. What comes next?
A. Major shoring up is the priority at this point, as additional search is not possible until the site is safe. Shoring up will take place, often, in many different places on the site and searches will be conducted simultaneously. As more and deeper parts of the structure are shored up, the searchers are able to penetrate deeper into the collapsed structure and are not seen from the outside. The search continues as long as it's possible that victims remain alive.
Q. What makes the task so difficult?
A. Essentially the teams have to "De-layer" the site. Layers of concrete slabs "pancake" on top of each other during a collapse. Within each layer are potential safe areas for victims. But the site has to be dug out from the top to the bottom and from the outside to the inside or the pile will collapse further. This could threaten rescue workers and potentially kill buried, but alive victims.
Q. Is that why rescuers don't dig from underneath the structure to reach people?
A. Yes, to do so is impossible without injuring or killing rescuers.
Q. Why do rescuers use "bucket brigades" to remove the debris rather than heavy equipment, such as bulldozers or cranes?
A. Heavy equipment can't get close enough to the core of the site. The common situation encountered is heavy equipment is blocked by twisted steel, slabs and other debris.
In fact, heavy equipment would destabilize the structure, risking the lives of rescuers and victims buried in the rubble. Only by hand can the pulverized concrete, glass, furniture and other debris be removed. In a large site, such as the World Trade Center, the bucket brigade has to span along unstable parts of a structure to firm ground and move debris to a place that can handle large trucks to haul it away. The WTC site itself spanned four square city blocks and included seven different collapsed buildings.
Q. In the World Trade Center, for example, what amount of debris are we talking about?
A. In the first five days after the collapse of the towers, 30,000 tons of debris had been removed by hand; there was an estimated 600,000 tons left.
Q. Do bulldozers or cranes ever help?
A. Yes, when it is determined that the rescue effort is over and that no one remains alive in the structure, large equipment can be moved in to remove debris.
Q. Since water is necessary to keep trapped victims alive until they are rescued, why don't rescuers shower the site with water in the hopes it will reach them?
A. Water creates significant problems for rescuers, slowing down the rescue process and potentially destabilizing the site because of run-off.
Q. How often are the US&R teams rotated on a Deployment?
A. The teams work 12 hours on and 12 hours off. They may rotate members within the team - remember each position has at least two members - or they may rotate complete teams. Typically, no team stays on site for more than seven days before being rotated out.
Q. Since there are so many teams, why were there only eight at the World Trade Center and four at the Pentagon?
A. It has to do with space limitations at the site. You can only have so many workers "attacking" the structure at one time before it becomes too dangerous. Also, the FEMA US&R teams augment the skilled and determined local rescuers as well, so there are sufficient numbers of rescuers at any time.
Q. What kind of risks do the US&R teams face?
A. Of greatest concern, of course, is being crushed by a structural collapse. Rescuers also get cuts and scrapes, broken bones, respiratory injuries due to hazardous material \ fumes, dust and carbon monoxide, and burns. They are also susceptible to diseases such diphtheria, tetanus and pneumonia.
Q. How are the teams paid?
A. When they are activated by FEMA, each individual is designated as Federal employee and they fall under Federal Guidelines for Payment, Workmans Comp Issues and Rules and Regulations. That persons regular employer will pay them upon return from deployment and or wait for reimbursement by FEMA to compensate the individuals.
Q. Who funds their equipment?
A. FEMA funds the Teams through a Grant process. Each team receives about $150,000 annually and this is used to fund the Administrative, Logistics and Equipment Purchases to meet the responsibilities of the Federal Agreement to Sponsor a Team. The required operational US&R Cache of equipment has about $2.5 million worth of equipment that supports a full 80 person team deployment and Search and Rescue Operations anywhere in the nation. Each team member is issued and responsible to carry as much as 60 pounds of equipment and protective clothing on their body.
Q. How long will they stay at a site?
A. Outlined in FEMA US&R Mission profile, teams are to be capable of a Deployment Phase for 72hrs.and be self reliant with out any outside support and or supplies (Wood and Water). Deployment of teams could last from 3-10 days.
Q. Does FEMA hire members of the US&R team and how can I apply?
A. The sponsoring agency provides Open Orientation for personnel to submit applications and provide certifications of training and education. There are many disciplines that make up the team and personnel are placed and or routed towards the job that will best serve the program. Once a person is accepted and listed on the team, training is extensive and the commitment required is significant. Volunteer time and qualifications are used as the main criteria for personnel selection on a Deployment.