Scott Kleinschmidt: Preparing Your Company for Disaster Search and Rescue Operations

By Scott Kleinschmidt

Severe weather events can be extremely taxing on a department’s resources. To lessen the impact on the organization, preparation and training should be implemented in advance. Planning for natural disasters will ensure individual fire companies are prepared to execute extended search and rescue operations involving large areas, inoperative topography, and unstable structures. If unprepared, Mother Nature’s wreckage can quickly exhaust the capacity of a department’s operational effectiveness.

When dispatched to a natural disaster event, companies will find themselves confronted with uncommon circumstances. Employing standard day-to-day operations will result in reduced efficiency at a time when efficiency is most needed. What are your responsibilities as the first-due company to an area of your city or district that has just experienced massive damage from a large tornado? How will you prioritize and systematically address large areas, treat walking wounded, search damaged structures, control compromised utilities, and attend to trapped citizens?

Since initial arriving companies cannot do it all, they will provide the greatest good by painting a big picture. By identifying hazards and recognizing functional objectives, additional responders deployed to mitigate the catastrophe can be better strategically allocated. This requires a tactical shift in our mindset from the typical medical aid run or structure fire we are accustomed to. We must exercise discipline and avoid committing ourselves to prolonged tasks. The primary goal is to quickly canvas the disaster footprint identifying hazards and known locations of trapped and deceased citizens. Since street access is often compromised, crews must be prepared to travel on foot with a limited complement of tools and medical supplies. Lessening the load on personnel from our standard deployment will enable quick and efficient movement through the affected area for an extended operational period.  

This is further accomplished by eliminating the small mechanic shop most firefighters carry in their pockets. While this is advantageous during normal operations, it is not conducive to this environment. Pockets should be emptied of all equipment that will not facilitate the mission at hand. Instead, become a walking medical kit. Empty the medical bag, and fill the vacant pockets with bandages, trauma dressings, triage tags, trauma shears, and anything else that will allow for quick delivery of medical attention without carrying an oversized bag around.

If staffing allows, configure your crew into two-person teams equipped with a tool arrangement that complements each other while remaining conducive to light travel. The following should be considered:

• Halligans. Try to outfit each member with a bar. This is one of the most versatile tools we have. Halligans can secure gas meters, manipulate water shutoffs, force doors, function as the lever or fulcrum when moving heavy objects, breach inspection holes, increase leverage potential when married with a like bar, act as a picket, smash decking, split wood, and be implemented for the striking tool. Striking with another bar eliminates the need for a conventional flathead ax or maul, which weighs down members.  

• Thermal imaging camera (TIC). Thermal imagers will assist in searching for victims in void spaces, debris fields, and during nighttime conditions. Keep in mind, however, that surface victims covered in dust will not readily appear on the display. The imagers can also be used to locate leaks in compromised piping or tanks.

• Flashlights. Expect to be working for a prolonged duration, so consider bringing extra batteries if applicable, especially if the event occurs at night.

• Bottle of water. Dehydration expedites fatigue and reduced cognitive function. Again, once on foot, the crew may be operational for hours at a time.

• Portable radios. In an effort to conserve battery life, take turns listening to one of the radios when working next to each other. Also consider taking extra batteries.

• Webbing and carabiners. Together, they can be used to stabilize loads, move victims, or construct a hauling system to move rubble.

• Three- or four-gas meter. Voids created by structural collapse in conjunction with the potential for gas leaks can reengineer the residential home into a confined space concern. If you can obtain a compact three- or four-gas meter, clip it onto your coat.

• Search marking kit. The major task of the initial crews is to locate victims. This necessitates properly marking structures while they are being searched and upon completion of the search. Too often, this is not done or is done incorrectly, leading to redundant actions that slows operational progress and fatigues resources. A solution that enhances unspoken communication is to ensure that each apparatus has a preassembled marking kit and follows the national marking system. These kits consist of at least two cans of orange spray paint; a rubber band holds in place a laminated search marking guide, large tip marker, construction crayon, or a piece of chalk. Some brands also carry triage tape with a reference card depicting recommended triage criteria.

As with everything else we do in the fire service, a little preplanning goes a long way in setting us up for success in this type of run.


Scott Kleinschmidt is a 20-year veteran of the Wichita (KS) Fire Department and is assigned as the lieutenant on Truck Company 2, serving the downtown and south side of the city. Previously, he was a firefighter assigned to the city’s rescue company. He has been a member of the city/county technical rescue team for the past 17 years and is a rescue technician/rescue manager with KS-TF5 regional USAR team. He instructs at the local, state, and national levels in rescue company operations and truck company operations.

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