USAR Operations: An Overview

USAR Operations: An Overview


Response to the Northridge Earthquake was immediate but difficult because of the complexities of simultaneous incidents and damage to the area’s infrastructure-i.e., power, water, and communications. The city of Los Angeles has experienced many disasters in its history and has developed preparedness plans that proved to be very effective during this event. Such plans include the fire department’s Earthquake Response Plan and Urban Search and Rescue Program, the city’s Emergency Plan and Community Preparedness Program, and a Regional Incident Command and Multiagency Coordination System. The state of California and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) systems provided the support needed for the technical rescue operations.

Fortunately, the earthquake occurred before many of the major collapsed structures would have been occupied, or the City of Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) alone would have been faced with eight or 10 major USAR operations and many additional rescues involving hundreds of entrapments, injuries, and deaths. This would have created a scenario that would have fully tested our local, state, and national USAR systems and medical response on a regional basis.

USAR operations began for LAFD when the earthquake hit and the department went into Earthquake Emergency Mode. Victims first trapped or injured by light debris or furniture were rescued by relatives and neighbors, including Los Angeles City’s Community Emergency Response Team members.

Chief officers and company officers were faced with a continuance of life-and-death decisions throughout the early stages of the earthquake. Collapsed structure rescue operations and controlling potential conflagrations were high-priority response missions.


Structural collapses were widespread, and had the time of day been different so that people would have been in the unoccupied buildings or on the freeways, thousands of deaths and injuries would have occurred.

In just seconds of violent shaking, thousands of buildings in the city of Los Angeles were damaged, hundreds of which suffered major collapses. The strong ground motion accelerations from the earthquake were the highest ever recorded within a metropolitan area. Horizontal accelerations of 0.3g to 1.2g were measured near the epicenter.


The following is a summary of specific structure types that did not perform well as a result of the quake:

  • Unreinforced masonry buildings. They are predominantly of brick construction. Most of the reinforced masonry buildings performed well.
  • Soft-story wood-frame structures.
  • Major problems were found in twoand three-story apartments, with collapses of the first-level garage area.
  • Reinforced concrete buildings and parking structures. Problems with nonductility and lack of shear strength.
  • Concrete tilt-up construction. Exterior wall and sectional roof collapses.
  • Steel frame high-rise buildings. Generally performed well with no significant structural damage. However, hidden structural damage in some buildings in the form of cracking at the steel frame connections were discovered.
  • Freeways. Collapse of elevated levels that had not been retrofitted to the 1989 California standards.
  • Nonstructural damage. Extensive widespread damage included broken water, natural gas, and sprinkler piping; interior partitions; ceilings; furniture; and equipment. Hazardous-materials spills occurred in hospitals and labs.

Most of the structures affected by the earthquake were considered to be reasonably earthquake resistant and performed well.


The USAR response for this incident was complex and needed overall management and coordination, handled at the incident command level by establishing a USAR group under Valley Area Command, and with close liaison with state representatives.

The initial responses to find and rescue trapped victims were made by relatives, friends, neighbors, or volunteers, who spontaneously assisted those around them. Probably 80 to 90 percent of all of the initial rescues of people trapped under furniture or light debris were accomplished by civilian volunteers. Some of the trained volunteers in Los Angeles responded as members of Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs). It is estimated that more than 1.000 of these volunteers responded to help their neighbors in the areas most heavily impacted by the quake, performing light search and rescue and disaster medical operations.

Phases of the USAR response went through the following process:

  1. Community volunteer response
  • spontaneous, untrained
  • trained CERT members
  • trained volunteer search groups
  • LAFD Fire & EMS resources
  • LAFD USAR teams
  • Mutual-aid USAR teams
  • State USAR task forces
  • FEM A US A R task forces
  • City of Los Angeles Public
  • Safety & Assistance teams Our initial response of engine and truck companies to structural collapse incidents involved a rapid assessment survey to locate victims and quantify damage and rescue viability. “Surface” victims were rescued as voids were searched to locate and extricate trapped victims. These companies carry some additional equipment for extrication, including diamond-blade rotary saws and a set of lifting air bags.

    Many companies initially worked alone or with limited assistance, including civilian volunteers. Prioritization by company commanders was essential, considering the number ot incidents and limited resources available.

    The immediate decisions to commit to a specific incident may or may not be extremely difficult, but they must be made. Rescue personnel must be trained and mentally prepared for what they may hear, see, and feel in a “critical” incident and be prepared to make emergency decisions based on fact and reality, not guesswork or emotion.

    Search and rescue. During search and rescue operations, particularly for the unresponsive victims, the time of day allowed us to focus on key areas such as residential occupancies and specifically bedrooms, where people most likely would be found at 4:30 in the morning. This saved considerable time in locating the majority of unresponsive victims. Had the event occurred later in the day, the search operations would have been much more extensive, adding to the number of resources required and the time needed for the search function.

    LAFD USAR teams. The next level of response involved specialized LAFD USAR teams made up of on-duty and recalled personnel. Four of these teams, consisting of 10 to 15 members, plus technical advisers and support elements, accessed and deployed our specialized equipment from our FEMA task force cache to the structures requiring their assistance. These teams responded to the more complex collapses to augment companies already on scene.

    Firefighter/paramedics played an important role with early medical intervention for victims requiring extensive extrication. LAFD response capability included special teams from the Department of Public Works with light cranes, compressors, and concrete breakers.

    Mutual-aid USAR teams. Mutual-aid USAR resources from the unaffected cities and counties around Los Angeles were requested and responded immediately. These teams consisted of command personnel. specialized engines, heavy rescues, and transportation vehicles. They came from more than 15 fire departments from Los Angeles and Orange counties. Most of the individual USAR increments were grouped into larger teams under a leader at the Valley Incident Command Post and assigned to secondary search and recon missions.

    State mutual aid. Within hours of the event, the California Office of Emergency Services initiated statewide mutual aid. including the activation of all eight in-state USAR task forces: CA-TF 1, Los Angeles City; CA-TF 2, Los Angeles County; CA-TF 3, Menlo Park; CA-TF 4. Oakland; CA-TF 5, Orange County; CA-TF 6, Riverside; CA-TF 7, Sacramento; and CA-TF 8, San Diego.

    This was the first time that all eight USAR task forces based in California were mobilized simultaneously for an event. They were all assembled in the Los Angeles area; four were deployed into the city of Los Angeles (Los Angeles City, Los Angeles County, Orange County, and Riverside), and four were staged at Los Alamitos Air Base. The task forces deployed into the incident performed secondary search operations, selective debris removal, and bodyrecovery operations.

    National task forces. FEMA alerted nine of the national task forces; two-the Puget Sound. Washington, and the Phoenix. Arizona, task forces-responded and staged at March Air Force Base in California. The Puget Sound task force was transported by military aircraft, whereas the Phoenix task force drove in a caravan of several vehicles.

    These task forces are comprised of 56 members. They have specialized equipment and medial supplies and are capable of 72 hours of self-sustained operations. Task force components consist of command personnel. search function, rescue function, medical function, and technical support.

    These task forces are trained and equipped to perform the following operations:

    • Conduct physical search and rescue operations in damaged/collapsed structures.
    • Provide emergency medical care to disaster response personnel.
    • Provide emergency medical care to the injured.
    • Perform reconnaissance duties such as assessing damage and needs and providing feedback to local, state, and federal officials.
    • Assess/shut off utilities to houses, buildings.
    • Conduct hazardous-materials surveys/ evaluations of affected areas.
    • Conduct structural/hazard evaluations of government/municipal buildings needed for immediate occupancy to support disaster
    • relief operations.
    • Assist in stabilizing damaged structures, including shoring and cribbing operations, on damaged buildings as required.

    Incident Support Team. FEMA also dispatched a small Incident Support Team (1ST) to Southern California to assist local, state, and federal officials with USAR coordination and disaster management.

    By January 18th. the USAR task forces were demobilized along with the mutual-aid USAR teams. The San Diego task force was deployed to the city of Fillmore, west of Los Angeles, to work on shoring and property recovery operations in the badly damaged business district. Some of the mutualaid USAR teams were deployed into the city of Santa Monica for property recovery.

    Because of the hundreds of aftershocks, LAFD USAR resources and specialized teams remained deployed 24 hours a day until January 24. 1994.

    “Red-tag” program. Hundreds of homeless victims were evacuated from their residences and relocated, leaving behind their valuables and irreplaceable items. The fire department, in cooperation with the LAPD. Department of Building and Safety, and Department of General Services, developed a program for entering the unsafe “red-tagged” buildings to retrieve these special items. The city’s Public Safety and Assistance teams responded to more than 300 missions in what turned out to be a very successful program that was appreciated by the homeless victims and the community.


    The following summarizes many of the lessons learned or plans reaffirmed from the Northridge Earthquake:

    • Jurisdictions with an earthquake risk should have specific plans to deal with widespread collapse, including specialized equipment training, a standardized incident command or management system, a backup or redundant system, and a working mutualaid system.
    • Preplanning and mitigation pay off in increasing effectiveness and minimizing danger, loss of life, and injury. Structural design and retrofit programs should be included.
    • Community preparedness and trained community volunteers are effective adjuncts to government response and should be expanded.
    • The National USAR Response System is viable and will be an integral part of disaster response if it is rapid and self-sustaining.
    • Local jurisdictions should have an emergency operations organization that builds a team response from within to include all departments integrated and coordinated under well-trained leadership.
    • Factors critical to the outcome of this event included the following:
      • time of day, epicenter location, and duration of the shaking;
      • extensive preplanning, training, exercising, and access to resources;
      • minimal wind conditions, which reduced potential for conflagration;
      • damage to infrastructure, water, natural gas, and electricity; and
      • access to local and regional USAR system response capability.
    • A good communications system is always essential to disaster management. Satellite systems should be researched to enhance current standard ground-based systems, and portable radio and cellular phone repeaters should be considered.
    • Disaster medical plans should include a system for handling patients when hospitals are not available and the predeployment of medical caches.
    • Increase local first-responder USAR capability with training, equipment, and response vehicles, in conjunction with a multidisciplined approach, i.e., structural engineers, medical personnel, equipment specialists, etc.
    • Fire departments must develop plans for effectively using specialized or scarce resources, mutual-aid resources, and volunteers in a major disaster where priority setting is essential for response.
    • Conduct a robust research and development program on USAR tools and equipment to improve portability, speed of operation, and overall effectiveness, as well as on emergency medical care for victims of structural collapse.

    We were prepared, and we were lucky! Each experience can be turned into a lesson learned by assessment, plan development, implementation, and continued assessment. Much needs to be done to prepare for future disasters. We (collectively) can develop better operational methods, tools, and equipment and build a response system for disaster that includes the community volunteer, the private sector, and emergency response agencies at all levels of government.

    Our ultimate challenge is to improve our effectiveness so that more lives are saved, suffering is reduced, and property loss is minimized.

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