USAR Regional Response: An Excersize in Teamwork

USAR Regional Response: An Excersize in Teamwork


On July 19, 1995, fire chiefs, firefighters, and EMS workers from New York State`s Capital District were brought together to hear plans for an Urban/Technical Search and Rescue Team (U/TSAR) to be comprised of career and volunteer personnel and based on the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) model. It was to be a regional response team that would encompass the seven contiguous counties of Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady, Saratoga, Warren, Montgomery, and Columbia. Its team members would represent 26 separate rescue and fire departments. For many at the initial meeting–with the recent floods across the nation and the Oklahoma City Bombing fresh in their minds–creating such a team was exciting, innovative, and necessary. Developing, forming, and actually deploying the team would also be an obvious challenge.


A great deal of preliminary organizational work had to be done by the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control (NYSOFPC), the New York State Professional Fire Fighters Association (NYSPFFA), the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs (NYSAFC), the New York State Emergency Management Office (SEMO), and–of course–some dedicated individuals.

At the July 1995 meeting, Fire Protection Specialist Brian Rousseau of the NYSOFPC, who had participated in much of the preliminary work process, outlined the plans for the team, including its mission and purpose, operational levels, and training requirements. Deputy State Fire Administrator Dan Caffrey of NYSOFPC [formerly of the City of New York Fire Department (FDNY)] discussed the need for such a team in Upstate New York and its potential benefits to the region and the entire state. Battalion Chief Ray Downey, chief of rescue operations for FDNY and a member of FEMA`s Advisory Committee, explained in detail the makeup and functions of the New York City FEMA team. Downey, who also served as chief of operations in Oklahoma City, explained that although it was only a short time ago that the New York City team was in the planning stages, it had just participated in the largest urban search and rescue effort on U.S. soil in our nation`s history.

On September 23, 1996, New York State Governor George E. Pataki signed an Executive Order “directing the establishment of a pilot project for urban search and rescue in the Capital Region.” This authorized the secretary of state and the state fire administrator to “train the Capital Region pilot team in the rescue of victims from collapsed structures caused by terrorist activities, or by other manmade or natural disasters” and provided funding for the training and equipment. A report on the feasibility of using the Capital Region pilot team in other regions of New York State was to be submitted to the governor by June 30, 1998 (after press time).


We formed a development committe consisting of representatives from the NYSOFPC and the NYSPFFA and volunteer and career firefighters. It met at least monthly. Initially, the committee felt that having three groups of 25 members, each up and running within five years, was a reasonable and realistic goal. It was determined that the Capital District Team would be modeled after the FEMA USAR teams (see Figure 1 on page 128) and ultimately be prepared to respond at the heavy operational level–a goal to which we are aspiring.

The development committee focused on the primary objectives of team composition, training, and a training delivery mechanism. It was anticipated that training would involve some local, some “mobile,” and some state-fixed sites. The problems that occurred during the developmental stages were not insurmountable–for example, paid and volunteer organizations were concerned about insurance coverage for their personnel when the team was deployed. Some of the development committee`s early work involved efforts at the state level to obtain protection for team members in the form of compensation in case of injury. The state responded by amending the State General Municipal Law to cover firefighters` acting as members of “specialized teams.”

Local fire chiefs were concerned about the cost of replacing team members within their departments during their deployment. This also was resolved at the state level. When the team is called out, New York State (and FEMA) disaster protocols will provide for backfilling these positions. These departments also benefit from the higher level of training of their personnel who are on the team and from the rapid response of the team should a disaster occur in their municipalities.


Not all team positions required the same degree of training. The development committee initiated an application process to be used as a guide in initially determining the minimum level of training for team members. Candidates submitted with their team applications New York State fire training certificates and records of any other training they had received. The applications were used also to determine the level of training that would be necessary in the future. The New York State Technical Rescue Committee established a training curriculum and the requirements for the various team positions, including prerequisite courses, based on existing state fire courses (see Figures 2, 3, and 4 on pages 130, 134, and 136). The New York State fire training program, recognized nationwide as an outstanding one, was expanded to meet the needs of U/TSAR training. Courses were refined as the need became apparent (this refining process is ongoing).

Proposed candidates for the team were initially screened by their chiefs, and those not recommended by their chiefs were not accepted. Instructors evaluated the candidates in terms of fitness and capability during actual training evolutions. The candidates had to meet a basic level of agility and fitness. The tasks were designed to test agility and fitness–for example, ap-plicants were required to lift a hydraulic tool a specific number of times, climb ladders, and carry a tool for a specified distance.


The Colonie Municipal Training Center, a local training facility, was the primary training site; some training was provided in other Capital District areas. Members of FDNY rescue companies, some of which have members who are on the New York City USAR team, traveled upstate to conduct much of the training. Members have been taking most of the training on their own time over the past two years, putting aside personal schedules and their private lives to reach their goals. Yet motivation remains high, and skills are developing well.

Additional training sites include the State Fire Academy in Montour Falls and Camp Smith in the New York State Academy of Fire Science Annex in Peekskill, where specialized training in areas such as high-angle rope rescue, shoring, and confined space search techniques will be offered. Special void search simulators have been constructed at this site. A great deal of effort has gone into making Camp Smith a premier training facility. Team training and training materials were provided under the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control pilot program.


The Capital District Team, following the FEMA team model, will ultimately have four levels of response.

The Basic Operational Level includes basic rope rescue and confined-space operations and awareness, as well as ice and water rescue and trench collapse. This would include local fire departments.

The Medium Operational Level represents basic search and rescue operations at structure collapse incidents involving light frame construction, reinforced and unreinforced masonry, concrete tilt-up and heavy timber construction, as well as basic trench collapse response and intermediate rope rescue capabilities. There might be about six Medium Level Teams in the state.

The Heavy Operational Level represents the capability to conduct safe and effective search and rescue operations at structure collapse incidents that involve the failure of reinforced concrete or steel-frame construction. This level also includes advanced rope rescue, trench, and confined-space capabilities.

At the FEMA/USAR Level, team members are trained and equipped to respond to and operate at the heavy operational level for up to 72 hours.

The goal is to have two heavy operational level response teams–one for upstate and one for downstate.

The NYSOFPC has assisted the Capital District Team by purchasing equipment, funding training, and evaluating and certifying the teams and individuals.

In terms of response support, according to the U/TSAR Operations Manual, the Incident Support Team will “provide specialists in the various major functional areas such as ICS, search, rescue, structural, communications, and logistics,” and will “provide on-scene support to the local team as well as have the basic management team in place if the incident should require further mobilization of resources from inside and outside the initial response region.”

Equipment for the upstate team will be cached in an area central to responding personnel. Several locations in the Capital District have been suggested, but a permanent home for the team`s equipment has not yet been found.

Although the Capital District Regional Response Team is not yet equipped for the heavy operational level, it has achieved a level of training and equipment that could only have been hoped for at the time of the July 1995 meeting.


The development committee has evolved into an executive committee consisting of instructors, NYSOFPC personnel, team leaders, and original team members. This group meets monthly to schedule training, evaluate team members and equipment status, and plan. The entire team meets at least quarterly to receive training materials, information on new equipment, and member updates and to disseminate other pertinent information from the executive committee. Additionally, members are given a calendar of upcoming training events.

Some of the original applicants have had to leave the team for personal reasons. In the near future, fire chiefs in the region will be asked to recommend prospective team members. It is anticipated that when the successes of the program become known, positions will be staffed to a deeper level by new applicants as they become trained.

Each completed course is another step toward individual and team certification and represents many committed hours on the part of each team member, even before responding to an incident. Future drills will include requiring personnel to participate in training exercises as members of a designated team so they will develop faith in each other`s skills, come to rely on each other to accomplish given objectives, and build team spirit.

Recently, all team members were assigned to four groups under the regional response team leaders. Training already received will be reinforced as each member assumes his role in the team. A phone chain has been developed for notifying team members of an activation; this system can be effectively tested through the scheduling of group training under the regional team leaders.

Although these groups will not remain constant in an actual deployment, the objectives include promoting teamwork within the operational structure, developing team identify, and enhancing skills through more frequent local drills. The team`s present level of training is higher than was foreseen three years ago due to team members` unselfish participation, the governor and NYSOFPC`s outstanding support, and instructors` high level of expertise and dedication.

At present, members continue to train and develop new skills. Personnel from different backgrounds over a large geographic region–from rescue squads and career and volunteer fire departments–are working together in the Capital District toward a common goal and with a high level of motivation. We are continuing to acquire equipment, and team members are learning to operate new tools and equipment as they become available. As the present training requirements are completed, the team will continue to evolve; perhaps new positions will become available–for example, recent world and national events might demonstrate the need for additional haz-mat certified personnel.

As Chief Downey has stated, “It`s not a matter of `if`; it`s a matter of `when` the next disaster will occur.” The past few years, the regional team has spent countless hours and a great deal of work preparing for whatever disaster may occur. When it happens, the Capital District Regional Response Team will be ready.

* * *

During the weekend of May 30-31, 1998, the Capital District Urban/Technical Regional Response Team was conducting an intensive two-day training exercise in a collapsed structure that included search and rescue operations, operating tools, and shoring. An extremely threatening weather front was approaching on Sunday; local forecasts warned of heavy winds and possible tornado activity. Based on these reports, the team leaders terminated training activities early to allow team members to return to their localities and prepare for possible response with their respective departments.

The National Weather Service issued a number of tornado watches and warnings throughout the day, a somewhat rare forecast for the region. At approximately 1600 hours, a tornado sighting was reported in the area of southern Saratoga County. The storm touched down in the southeastern portion of the county, causing significant damage in the Stillwater/Mechanicville area. The tornado received an F-4 designation.

At approximately 1645 hours, local fire officials in the hardest hit area requested activation of the U/TSAR team because of the large and widespread structural damage that had occurred. Some of the team`s leaders traveled immediately to the tornado area to meet with incident command personnel and institute a response plan. At approximately 1800 hours, team deployment was begun, using a voice mail/pager system and direct phone calls to individuals, fire departments, and rescue companies (the team members come from 26 area agencies). Personnel were told to report to a rear staging area at the Latham (NY) Fire Department, about 20 miles from the tornado area. This was the team`s first operational period–from 1800 hours May 31 to 0600 hours June 1, 1998.

In a bus borrowed from a local department, personnel were en route to the devastated area at 1850 hours. This was considered an excellent response for the team`s initial activation. However, due to some miscommununication and the urgency of the response, members who were later deployed were separated from the first crews, and the team was split between two locations within the storm-damaged area. Later-arriving team members were staged in Mechanicville and joined the rest of the team the next day during the second operational period (from 0600 hours to 1800 hours on June 1, 1998).

In Turning Point, one of the storm`s heaviest hit areas, Capital District U/TSAR team members conducted searches and provided an advisory for the stability of structures, using a three-squad concept with three sectors of operation. It searched 35 residential structures. Of these, 15 were found to be lightly to moderately damaged; 10, heavily damaged; and 10, totally destroyed.

In addition to search operations, team members secured building utilities, firearms, and a number of pets. A short debriefing and critique preceded team members` release in the early morning hours of June 1.

During the morning of the second operational period, team members were deployed to the Riverside (Mechanicville) area to conduct a final search and prepare a structural stability advisory on approximately 35 residential and five commercial/industrial occupancies in neighborhoods from which residents had been evacuated. The extent of the storm`s damage precluded some residents from returning to their homes; team members served as a link for those displaced from their homes.

At 1345 hours, the team was requested to return to the Turning Point area to assist civilians in retrieving personal items and valuables from unstable and unsafe structures. The three-squad concept was maintained, and team operations continued until 1700 hours; a short critique of the day`s efforts was held.

As an interesting note, much of the team`s training taught members to deal with situations encountered within a single collapsed structure. The southern Saratoga County response raised questions about and highlighted the need for planning for situations involving the collapse of entire neighborhoods.


Besides giving the Capital District team an opportunity to assist the tornado victims, the team`s first activation provided a critical learning experience. We learned the following:

Each team member must be provided with and wear safety shoes/boots and glasses.

Personal lighting was also a primary concern.

Team communications equipment was unavailable during the first operational period; the benefit of radio equipment was evident the next day, as team efforts could be better coordinated.

The team notification system needs to be improved.

Other recommendations for equipment include the following: camera and recording equipment, TOPO maps, updated ID badges (unauthorized entry into the damaged area became a problem), and more EMS equipment for team members.

Overall, the team`s first deployment has been judged successful. The quickness and efficiency of the initial activation were probably much better than could have been expected. Many lessons were learned, and there were many suggestions for more effective operations in the future. Among these lessons, we also learned that in terms of equipment, training, and motivation, the team was prepared to respond. We will be even better prepared the next time. n


(Top left) Team members attach horizontal bracing to solid sole raker shores during recent training. (Photo by author.) (Top right) Team member emerges from confined space training evolution. (Photo by Jeanne Mesick.) (Middle left, bottom left) Void simulator at the camp. Platforms tilt in four directions to simulate voids for shoring training and confined search. (Photos by author.) (Middle right) Rigging team safety officer observes members as they prepare to enter a confined space. Other members monitor and support the entry team. (Photo by Jeanne Mesick.) (Bottom right) Team members construct a double raker shore. (Photo by author.)

The Capital District Urban/Technical Region Response Team`s first deployment was to tornado-stricken Saratoga County. (Photos by Kevin Terry.)


The U/TS&R Regional Response Team (RRT) system was developed to provide a group of highly qualified rescue specialists readily available for rapid assembly and deployment to the scene of an emergency where their services are requested. The mission of the RRT is to provide integrated, skilled urban/technical search and rescue units in situations where the local emergency service resources are unable to provide the required rescue effort.

Recent events, such as the World Trade Center Bombing and the Oklahoma City Bombing, have created a heightened awareness throughout this country of the need for technical rescue and, more specifically, urban search and rescue capabilities. These events, while profound in their impact, tend to overshadow the true need for training and response capabilities in all areas of technical rescue.

Although New York is small in comparison with some states, it has a wide range of geography types that create different potential problems. From the sandy flat lands of Long Island to the rocky summits of the Adirondack Mountains, each region has the potential for a major natural disaster that will exceed the capabilities of our emergency services. Long Island and New York City have been in the path of a number of hurricanes, many portions of this state have experienced tornadoes, a portion of western New York and the Adirondacks sits on an earthquake fault that is considered overdue for a major quake, and the entire state is susceptible to snow and ice storms that can result in significant structural loading as well as severe flooding from the snow melt. Any of these events can and have caused buildings to collapse, trapping occupants.

In addition to the potential for natural disasters, acts of terrorism or unrest can occur not only in New York City but in the sparsely populated areas as well. Many people in the world view New York as the center of world economics and government. From Wall Street to the United Nations to the state capitol in Albany, those who want to make a statement come here to be heard. Unfortunately, as was shown in the World Trade Center Bombing, those who want to be heard by creating death and disaster also find our state a good place to be heard. n

n MICHAEL DellaRocco, a member of the Schenectady (NY) Fire Department since 1975, is a deputy chief and formerly served as EMS coordinator and training officer. He is a New York State arson investigator; a member of the Schenectady County Haz-Mat Response Team, the Capital District Regional Response Team (U/TSAR) Development Committee, and CDRRT executive committees; and a regional response team leader, Capital District Regional Response Team. DellaRocco is a member of the adjunct faculty of the Schenectady County Community College. He has a bachelor`s degree in English and secondary education and a master`s degree in education from the State University of New York at Albany.

This article is dedicated to Chief Thomas M. McCormack, of Watervliet, New York, who died in the line of duty in December 1997. He was an active member of the Capital District U/TSAR development team. His initials and badge number have been incorporated into the team`s patch design.

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