Whom Do You Call on in a Disaster: Your Local USAR Team or Mutual Aid?

One of the basic rules of the fire service for most of us is “to prepare for the usual and have contingencies for the unusual.” I emphasized “most of us” because there are some departments that, for whatever reason, have the resources to fund and prepare for the most unusual event that could happen in their community.

Disaster can strike anywhere at any time. The good news about disasters is their frequency rate. The bad news is their diversity. What may be a disaster in your community might be an everyday occurrence somewhere else. I remember Chief Alan Brunacini telling his students in a class in Michigan some years ago, “In Phoenix, if it gets below 45°, they declare a state of emergency!”

In today’s fire service with economic and staffing issues as they are, it’s hard enough to properly staff and support fire and rescue protection for the community you serve, let alone take on “technical” specialties that require vast amounts of staffing, tools, and training that almost always equate to money.

Few departments have the resources to be a stand-alone department. Today, fewer and fewer departments maintain the “we’ll never use mutual aid” mentality than in the past. The way the country is headed, mutual aid (and it’s more unpopular cousin, automatic aid) is something that will become more and more the norm. — John “Skip” Coleman, retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).

Question: If a disaster occurred in your community, would you be able to call on your department’s USAR team/capabilities, or would you have to rely on mutual aid?

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York
FDNY has been in a position to provide and receive USAR assistance. Our USAR task force is comprised of highly trained firefighters who are members of the FDNY Special Operations Command. They offer extensive experience developed from years of operating at structural collapses and confined space rescues in New York City. FDNY USAR teams have been deployed to Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav and other out-of-state disasters.

On the other hand, USAR task forces from all over the country responded to New York City and provided vital support when the terrorist attacks occurred on 9/11/01. The experience reinforced the fact that no community is entirely self-sufficient when dealing with manmade or natural catastrophic events.

Bobby Shelton, firefighter,
Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department
Our department has two heavy rescue companies at its disposal. Most of the members of those companies are members of the county USAR team, the State USAR team, or both. This proves to be a great advantage when it comes to training and experience. If an event occurs that those two heavy rescues cannot mitigate, then the county USAR team is requested through mutual aid for further assistance, tools, equipment, and personnel.

Robert Metzger, chief,
Golden Gate (FL) Fire Control and Rescue District
In southwest Florida, disaster potential exists with every hurricane season. The Golden Gate Fire Control and Rescue District maintains a state-certified Type II USAR team which is deployable locally and statewide. In addition, neighboring fire districts maintain additional significant capabilities similar to those of our team that may be used through mutual aid. Grant funds have provided for most of the outfitting for the teams in the state,

Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department
We have our own USAR response capabilities. We provide technical rescue training to all of our department’s sworn personnel. In the technical rescue realm, we maintain our personnel at the operations or technician level. Currently, all personnel are at the technician level in vehicle/machinery, trench, confined space, and rope rescue; we are at an operations level for swift water rescue. We are in an ongoing process of providing technician-level training in structural collapse, specifically to members who have volunteered to be a part of the Oregon State USAR (SUSAR) program. We have taken a very active role in the SUSAR program and have several of our members involved on the governance board and in training and mobilization. In addition, several members are trained FEMA USAR instructors. Any effort to strengthen our mutual-aid, automatic-aid, and state-aid agreements in specialized disciplines is a win for all departments and the citizens we serve.

Brian Cudaback, battalion chief,
Arlington (TX) Fire-Rescue
We have no designated USAR team and very limited USAR capabilities. We do have a designated Technical Rescue Team (TRT) that has the primary responsibility of trench and rope rescues. A few members of that team, along with others in the organization, have been certified in the Rescue and Search Specialist Technician discipline, but the department has not supported that training with equipment or a formal operations plan. We also have members of the organization that participate on Texas-Task Force 1, a federal asset, but most of them do not occupy key roles under the department’s Special Operations Command. We are fortunate to have Texas-Task Force 2, a state-certified asset, located in Dallas and a couple of smaller regional USAR teams that would mobilize to support us if needed. The department has no plans to develop its own team.

Michael T. Metro, assistant chief,
Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department
The department has two USAR teams, one in the South County and one in the North County. We also have a type I deployable team with a full second roster and a number of regional USAR vehicles we can call on for mutual aid if needed.

Billy Goldfeder, deputy chief,
Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department
Although we do have a heavy rescue squad and a trained rescue task force, mutual aid would be a critical part of the response.

Jeffrey Schwering, captain,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services
My department, like most in our area, would be forced to rely on automatic and mutual aid in a natural disaster. With two engines out of the same house, we do the best with what we have at our disposal.

If the event affects only a certain part of the county, everyone plays a part if necessary. In a large-scale event, we would be on our own–no USAR capabilities for as long as it takes.

Marion F. Blackwell Jr., chief,
Stillwater (OK) Fire Department
Our department maintains a small technical rescue team. This team is adequate for the majority of the specialized rescue incidents within our jurisdiction and for response with our surrounding mutual-aid departments. If we have an incident that exceeds our capabilities, we would rely on Oklahoma Task Force 1 based in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. We currently provide four personnel as members of the OK-TF 1. Once these resources have been committed and capabilities are still exceeded, we would request additional USAR teams through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)/Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Marty Hamrick, captain,
Jonesboro (AR) Fire Department
We are in the process of building a tech rescue team. Because of the lack of training on this subject in this state, we have to send members out of state to train. We protect a city of nearly 70,000 over a roughly 90-square-mile area and provide mutual aid to our neighbors in Northeast Arkansas. We are very near the New Madrid fault line and are prone to tornados, so we are trying to be proactive in this response, but limited funding and the lack of quality local training make it difficult. The possibility of a state-level USAR team has been discussed with the state government, but the state wants the state police to handle it, since they are the lead on search and rescue. They don’t seem to understand the difference between locating a missing child in the woods and locating one in a collapse void. We are trying to change that.

Gene “Alan” Earnhart, assistant chief of operations,
Sherwood (AR) Fire Protection District
Our small suburban department, just north of Little Rock, serves a population of approximately 32,000. Our district is mostly residential with very little industrial/commercial to produce the major revenue needed to support a large USAR team or service, and our citizens are already carrying a substantial tax load. We have to depend on mutual-aid agreements with the larger departments around us for USAR personnel and equipment we cannot afford. We do, however, have some of the basic equipment to handle a light incident. For extended operations or more technical incidents, we have agreements with the North Little Rock and Little Rock Fire Departments that are just a few miles to the south, along with mutual-aid agreements with the Gravel Ridge and Jacksonville Fire Departments that boarder us to the north.

Jimmy Grostick, lieutenant,
McLane-Black Lake (WA) Fire Dept
Our department hosts the Thurston County SORT Team and has USAR capabilities for structural collapse, rope, confined space, swift-flood water, tree rescue, and trench.

Carl Coan, battalion chief-special operations,
Garland (TX) Fire Department
We can do both, depending on the scale of the event. Over the past 20 years, Garland has established, equipped, and trained a strong USAR capability within our department. We have the training and supplies to effectively mitigate a small partial collapse without assistance and to begin operations on a large-scale event while mutual-aid companies respond. We have a strong working relationship with several neighboring jurisdictions, including Dallas and Texas Task Force II, a state recognized USAR asset. This strong working relationship has included numerous multijurisdictional training exercises that have focused on building collapse, trench collapse, confined space, and water rescue with an emphasis on swift-water conditions. The ability to begin USAR operations safely and effectively is critical; the ability to recognize the need for assistance, both the technical and personnel aspects, is paramount in executing our mission of protecting the citizens.

Jim Washko, deputy chief,
Coeur d’ Alene (ID) Fire Department
Idaho has three Type II Collapse SAR teams: Coeur d’Alene FD ID-TF1, Boise FD ID-TF-2, and Idaho Falls FD/Pocatello FD ID-TF-30, developed at a request of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security (BHS). We were funded for equipment over the past five years and receive sustaining funds for training and equipment maintenance. All three teams came together to receive our training for structural collapse, confined space rescue, and trench rescue through ARK Technical Rescue Training Services, Inc., (part of Virginia TF 1). We were trained to a Federal Emergency Management Association equivalent level of Train the Trainers. This allows us to train our members in house. All rope/tech rescue training is done through individual departments up to Level III.

Our equipment is also very similar in regard to type, not necessarily manufacturer. This allows us to come together and form a larger team when necessary. At this time, Coeur d’ Alene ID TF-1 has a canine component with two live-search and two cadaver dogs certified. Also, we are working with our State BHS coordinator and have formed committees to standardize all standard operating procedures (SOPs), create a training manual, and build a training calendar so that all teams are training on the same evolutions during each training cycle, to build better consistency and cohesiveness.

Richard Kelley, battalion chief,
Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department
In a disaster, our department has worked with the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security and approximately 30 other fire departments, law enforcement agencies, public works and private subject matter experts in the state to provide US&R response. Oklahoma has the equipment cache of a two Type I US&R Task Forces logistically located in the Oklahoma City Metro Area and the Tulsa Metro Area. We are self-sufficient for 72 hours, from food and water down to force protection and communications.

Oklahoma is also involved with S.U.S.A.R., which actively promotes local, regional, and state-provided US&R Task Forces. This allows our leaders to learn from numerous other states and communities that have established US&R programs.

After the Murrah Building Bombing, the DeBruce Grain Elevator explosion, the I-40 bridge collapse, and numerous tornados and floods, we understand the importance of providing a rapid US&R response to our citizens. This has also been a great opportunity to work with other departments in the Oklahoma City Metro Area and Tulsa Metro Area. Although we have always had a great working relationship with our brothers and sisters in the metro areas, this has forged a stronger bond.

Scott Sanders, lieutenant,
Jefferson (GA) Fire Department
Our department is equipped to handle technical rescue operations (rope: high/low angle, confined space) during the initial response phase. Our department would have to rely heavily on the Georgia Search and Rescue Task Force (GSAR) if a “true” USAR manmade or natural disaster occurred in our community. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) is addressing this issue with the expansion of GSAR capabilities throughout Georgia. Our department is in GEMA Region 1, which is targeted to receive a GSAR Heavy Rescue Task Force that will be designated “GSAR-TF1” and will provide increased response capabilities to our department. GSAR-TF1 will use personnel from several GEMA Region 1 counties to provide personnel to staff the response team if a USAR event or other technical rescue incident occurs within Region 1 or any other area throughout Georgia.

Vance L. Duncan III, deputy chief,
Erie (PA) Bureau of Fire
Our department is one of the sponsoring agencies of PA Company 4, a regional USAR element of the PA USAR system situated in NW Pennsylvania. PA Company 4 has two points of dispatch-the Erie Fire Department and the Oil City Fire Department-approximately 55 miles from each other. Both departments have capabilities and equipment for structural collapse rescue, technical search, hazardous materials specialists/support, and technical rescue (rope and high angle). We may also request additional heavy rescue equipment and other needed equipment from mutual-aid fire departments within the Northwest Pennsylvania Emergency Response Group (Erie, Crawford, Warren, Venango, and Forest Counties). If we are overwhelmed because of many requests for resources and personnel, PA Company 4 can request mutual aid USAR resources from other elements of the PA USAR system through the County Emergency Operations Center and the PA Emergency Management Agency in Harrisburg. Once these resources are exhausted, the next step is to request the federal USAR Task Forces through the Office of the Pennsylvania governor.

Jason Vallery, captain,
Longview (TX) Fire Department
We have USAR capabilities–~30 trained collapse rescue technicians, paratech USAR kit, Ellis jacks, wood, breakers, construction equipment (hammers, air guns, sliding compound miter, concrete chainsaw, multiple wood saws, palm nailers, reciprocating saws), petrogen cutter, oxyacetylene, lobster tools, and so on. We have several members of the TX-TF1 USAR team with federal deployment experience.

Allen Schneider, lieutenant,
Hampton Bays (NY) Fire Department
We are on Eastern Long Island in an area that can be devastated by hurricanes. Since the early ’90s, we have maintained a technical rescue unit with most of the capabilities of a regional USAR team: collapse rescue, heavy rescue, trench rescue, confined space rescue, high angle rescue, ice rescue, and dive rescue.

The district funded this unit because if a natural disaster were to occur, we most likely would be on our own for rescue resources for a couple of days because of the large area that would be affected. This makes it imperative that we be able to start operations before the cavalry arrives.

Dave Casey, chief (ret.), standards & training,
Florida State Fire Marshal, Ocala, FL
After the September 11 attacks, Florida developed a statewide system, helping to form 50 Type II technical rescue teams and six additional US&R Task Forces in addition to FEMA’s FL-TF-1 and -2. State Homeland Security Grant Program funding was used to equip and train the task forces and teams, which are part of a statewide deployment system. Roughly $40 million provided more than182,160 initial training hours, equipment, and partial personnel costs. The 50 technical rescue teams are immediate response teams of six (18 trained) firefighters trained to technician level for rope, confined space, trench rescue, and vehicle/machinery extrication. The US&R Task Forces follow the FEMA US&R training matrix and deployment timeframes, and are similarly equipped. The system proved its value, responding to the 2006 and 2007 Central Florida tornadoes; the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, including Mississippi; and numerous local emergencies. The statewide system is coordinated by the State Fire Marshal and is operated in partnership with the Florida Fire Chief’s Association.

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
We do not have our own USAR team; however, we are big believers in the USAR concept. If the need arises for a USAR response within our community, we have TX-TF1 and TX-TF2 on which we can rely. TX-TF2 runs primarily out of Dallas and can be here quickly. I know many of the team members, and they are highly experienced and well trained.

If we had an incident or a disaster and needed their response, we can count on them.

Kevin Galt, firefighter/paramedic,
Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire Rescue
Departments in South Florida have a large number of their own assets and capabilities because of previous events or identified potential threats. My department has many members with specialized training that can be used during disasters. We have some of the specialized equipment that FEMA USAR task forces have. Numerous members of our department are also members of USAR FL-TF II, with the training and expertise to provide valuable skills and personnel to our department during a disaster. Many have served on deployments around the nation.

Granted, our skill level meets only the NFPA 1670 Operations level training overall, and our equipment cache is much smaller. We also have a fully staffed technical rescue and a hazmat team to assist. These teams, along with the equipment caches, emergency operations plan, and our own emergency operations center within the city, make us capable of handling a significant portion of the initial response to any disaster. Additionally our department has many personnel with specialized training as well as a CERT program to supplement our support staff. Fort Lauderdale can also deploy a state-designated Type IV “Light Task Force” for rapid regional response to any disaster in Florida. From there, the Department of Homeland Security has Type 1 teams for response from around the nation. Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue is very capable of initiating an action plan and implementing a rapid response until additional resources can be mobilized and deployed.

Subject: Urban Search & Rescue (USAR), mutual aid, Roundtable, disaster response

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