FEMA URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE OPERATIONS

BY FRED ENDRIKAT

Terrorists’ use of hijacked commercial aircraft as weapons of mass destruction and the simultaneous attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) complex in New York City (NYC) and the Pentagon complex in Arlington, Virginia, on the morning of September 11, 2001, triggered the most significant response in the history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue National Response System. The attacks prompted a Presidential Disaster Declaration under the Stafford Act and the activation of the Federal Response Plan. The government implements the Federal Response Plan during a disaster to provide state and local governments with technical expertise, equipment, and other resources.

The magnitude of the destruction at the WTC complex prompted the NYC Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to request, through the appropriate channels, eight USAR task forces (TFs).

The task forces are the fundamental units of FEMA’s National System. Each TF is sponsored by a state or local government jurisdiction and is comprised of 62 technical specialists, divided into management and operational elements. Currently, there are 28 USAR TFs in the federal system. A significant number of the agencies that sponsor federal TFs are municipal fire departments; a significant percentage of the members of the federal USAR system are firefighters.


Physical and canine search operations in a below-grade void space. (Photo by PA USAR Task Force 1.)

While the USAR program office staff began to process the request for assistance (and a simultaneous request for assistance at the Pentagon incident), Incident Support Team (IST) members for both incidents were immediately activated and began to deploy.

The IST provides federal, state, and local officials with technical assistance in acquiring and using federal USAR resources through advice, incident command assistance, management and coordination of USAR TFs, and obtaining logistical support.

The FEMA USAR program includes three 20-member ISTs (the Red, White, and Blue teams). Each IST is on call one out of every three months; members must be able to deploy within two hours of receiving their activation orders. The White IST was on call the month of September 2001. Since all airline traffic was shut down after the attacks, most team members could not immediately deploy, resulting in the significant understaffing of the IST team in the critical early stages of the WTC collapse.


An overhanging structural steel beam, a projectile from the collapse that was impaled on the 17th-20th floors of the adjacent American Express Building, caused considerable concern for USAR structural engineers until it was tied back and secured by FDNY and USAR personnel. (Photo by PA USAR Task Force 1.)

Both IST White team leaders serve as chief officers in California fire departments and could not procure transportation to New York. I, therefore, was assigned to serve as the team’s operations chief, my regular position, and as the team’s leader for the first two days until the assigned IST leaders arrived.

My first task was to respond to McGuire Air Force Base (AFB) in New Jersey to arrange with the military command for logistical support and ground transportation for the incoming USAR TFs. The FEMA IST ESF-9 leader (ESF-9 leaders are full-time FEMA employees) and another IST supervisor from the Operations Section arrived at McGuire AFB around the same time. This supervisor remained at McGuire to finalize arrangements and coordinate the logistics for TFs arriving by military air transport before he deployed to New York. The ESF-9 leader and the IST leader responded to NYC in a Pennsylvania State Police cruiser; they arrived around 1830 hours.

ARRIVAL OF FIRST IST MEMBERS AT WTC SITE

On arrival in NYC, the two initial IST members reported to the Jacob Javits Convention Center, approximately 40 blocks from the WTC site. They contacted Ray Lynch, the USAR coordinator for the Mayor’s Office of OEM, who worked throughout the entire incident to coordinate interaction with NYC departments and FEMA USAR elements. One large exhibit hall in the Javits Center was dedicated for federal USAR TFs and the IST, and the setting up of communications and logistical support was begun shortly before the arrival of the first TFs.

The two IST members were then taken to the collapse site, where they met with FDNY and city officials to discuss the specific immediate needs of the collapse operations and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (the legal document that defines the operating instructions, responsibilities of all parties, and parameters for the engagement of federal USAR assets).


A USAR technical search specialist uses a fiber optic search camera to explore void spaces. (Photo by Michael Rieger, FEMA.)

FEMA TFs were brought in to provide unique technical capabilities and to support the ongoing search and rescue effort. Throughout the WTC operation, the FEMA IST and USAR teams worked under FDNY’s command and control structure.

ARRIVAL OF FIRST TASK FORCES: PHASE 1

Of the eight initial TFs activated by FEMA, four responded by ground transportation [Pennsylvania TF1 (PA-TF1), Massachusetts TF1 (MA-TF1), Ohio (OH-TF1), and Indiana TF1 (IN-TF1)]. The other four teams responded by military airlift (California TF1 (CA-TF1), California TF6 (CA-TF6), California TF7 (CA-TF7), and Missouri TF1 (MO-TF1)].

After encountering long delays in traffic in and around NYC, USAR PA-TF1 and MA-TF1 arrived by ground transportation at the Javits Center at approximately 2230 hours on September 11 and began to set up the Base of Operations (BOO), the area where TFs set up their command center; equipment cache; and sleeping, food service, and personal hygiene areas to support their 62 members.

After the TFs off-loaded their equipment from tractor-trailers inside the Javits Center and got a few hours of much-needed rest, PA-TF1 and MA-TF1 Advance Management Elements responded to the site in the early morning hours with the IST leader/operations chief to receive their initial orders, meet the FDNY sector commanders (the chiefs of the areas in which they would work), and conduct an initial assessment so that tactical operational plans could be developed.

MA-TF1 and PA-TF1 engaged in preliminary rescue operations at 0500-0900 hours on September 12. Their primary focus included establishing Forward Operating Areas (and the logistical issues of transporting their equipment cache from the Javits Center), the immediate use of canine and technical search equipment, and the cutting of heavy steel debris from the collapsed structures. The distance between the Javits Center BOO and the WTC site ordinarily would have posed no logistical or transportation problem for the TFs, but the damaged infrastructure and the monumental traffic congestion turned what ordinarily would have been 10 to 15 minutes of travel time into more than two hours in some cases.

Later in the day on September 12 and through September 13, PA-TF1 and MA-TF1 were joined by OH-TF1 and IN-TF1.

FEMA USAR assets were assigned to the four sectors established by FDNY (Liberty, West, Church, and Vesey) and used the same geographic divisions and terminology as FDNY for all of their operational planning and documentation. Each of the four TFs was assigned to one of the four operating sectors.

On September 14, the remainder of the four TFs in Phase 1 of deployment (CA-TFs 1, 6, and 7 and MO-TF1) made their way from McGuire AFB to the WTC site by ground transportation. Each TF was assigned to one of the four operating sectors, where they immediately engaged in search and rescue operations along with the four TFs already working in the sectors.

Per standard operating procedures, the USAR TFs worked 24 hours a day; each TF was split into two 31-member operating elements. Each half of the TF worked a 12-hour shift and then was transported back to the Javits Center BOO for rest and rehabilitation. Because of traffic and transportation logistic issues, many TFs worked 16- to 18-hour shifts during the initial days of operations.

The IST prioritized the tasks, which were assigned to the initial operating TFs during regularly scheduled operational briefings. Forward Staging Areas were continually established for each TF.

The IST continued to use the Javits Center as its BOO for the duration of the incident. The operations chief was assigned to the incident command post, located on Duane Street at the FDNY quarters of Engine 7, Ladder 1, and Battalion 1, a few blocks from the WTC site. He worked directly with Battalion Chief John Norman of FDNY’s Special Operations Command (the incident’s search and rescue manager) to develop strategy and tactics for the USAR TFs to assist FDNY. During his deployment, the operations chief was also assigned by FEMA to work with the City of New York in rebuilding and reestablishing NYC’s FEMA Urban Search and Rescue TF. New York’s TF1 lost many team leaders and members along with its equipment in the WTC fire and collapse.

An IST operations liaison was assigned to the operations post as the immediate on-site coordinator of FDNY requests for specific USAR assets. The command post was located in the quarters of FDNY Engine 10 and Ladder 10, which was directly across the street from the South Tower and was heavily damaged in the collapse. The majority of the requests were for canine and technical search (with fiber optic cameras) of void spaces and the specially trained structural engineers assigned to the IST and each TF. The engineers assessed and evaluated dangerous void spaces, overhanging hazards, and the structural integrity of collaterally damaged buildings.

The IST Plans Section chief was also assigned to the command post for the duration of his stay. There, he coordinated short- and long-range planning for all federal USAR assets and assisted FDNY with its planning section activities.

OPERATIONAL CONSIDERATIONS

One of the most challenging aspects of this incident was the comprehensive effort made to prioritize and document search operations. The 16-acre site, with six stories below ground-level, was the most complex urban area ever encountered for collapse search activities (particularly the search of underground stores, commercial and mechanical/utility spaces, parking garages, and subway/train tunnels). In the early stages of the incident, there was considerable duplication of effort in areas searched, much of it with significant risk to personnel, especially FDNY members. As the results of completed search missions were documented and put together, search strategy and priorities were evaluated.

IST and TF personnel assisted FDNY in establishing a grid system, which divided the entire site into specific 75- 2 75-foot areas and allowed operating personnel to have the same reference points for all operations. Additionally, the use of a standardized search marking system was coordinated with FDNY.

During early search operations, IST personnel and members of several TFs worked with new technology (some of it highly classified) supplied by Department of Defense and Department of Energy experts. USAR personnel conducted field-testing during collapse search operations with new state-of-the-art optical, robotic, and pulse radar equipment. It is expected that much more highly effective technical search equipment will be developed as a result of the information gained from this experience.

Unlike many other incidents in which federal USAR assets have operated, there were no significant concrete breaching/breaking and no extensive shoring operations. USAR rescue specialists assisted FDNY and union iron workers in the massive steel-cutting operations and the significant heavy equipment/rigging operations needed to remove debris and gain access to voids inside the collapsed structures. They also assisted FDNY in physically searching numerous void spaces. Significant belowgrade/confined space operations occurred in the debris abovegrade, as well as into the existing infrastructure underground, where accountability, communications, and the toxic and hazardous flammable atmosphere presented significant operational concerns to personnel.

USAR personnel, along with FDNY Special Operations Command personnel, escorted members of a number of law enforcement agencies, such as the New York Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Secret Service, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Securities & Exchange Commission, through often unstable collapse voids on belowgrade reconnaissance missions in various sections of the WTC complex. They were searching for evidence necessary to their investigations and the security of underground bank vaults.

Communications, particularly during the first few days, were difficult for federal USAR assets. Because of the distance from the Javits Center BOO to the collapse site, portable radios were not effective on a consistent basis. Many cellular telephone service antennas and landlines were destroyed in the collapse. The lack of operating ability for both hard-line and cellular telephones (and the intermittent availability of satellite telephone communications) hindered operations.

Setting up large hydraulic cranes and their subsequent operations were critical to the technical rescue operation. Significant time was taken to construct base matting and shoring to support the placement of the larger cranes at specific targeted areas so they could remove heavy steel debris; this was crucial to continuing search and rescue operations. Some of the operational strategy and tactics for FDNY and FEMA USAR TFs depended on the timing of crane placement.

USAR TF DEPLOYMENT: PHASE 2

As the first TFs continued operations, the IST, in conjunction with FEMA Headquarters, began to plan for on-site relief for TF members and Phase 2 of USAR TF deployment and engagement. Nine additional TFs were assigned to relieve the original TFs on a staggered schedule. On September 19, Florida TF1 and Florida TF2 (FL-TF1 and FL-TF2) arrived by their own ground transportation assets. All remaining TFs in Phases 2 and 3 of operations were transported by military airlift and staged at McGuire AFB before responding to NYC.

Texas TF-1 (TX-TF1) arrived at the BOO on September 19, followed by Utah TF-1 (UT-TF1) on September 20. Arizona TF-1 (AZ-TF1), Washington TF-1 (WA-TF1), California TF-3 (CA-TF3), and California TF-8 (CA-TF8) arrived on September 21. Colorado TF-1 (CO-TF1) was staged at McGuire AFB for three days before moving to NYC and engaging in operations at the site on September 25.

ESTABLISHMENT OF RAPID RESPONSE TF

As the IST continued to manage field operations for the TFs engaged in search and rescue operations, IST leaders and members of the IST Operations Section met with FDNY commanders to assess FDNY’s ability to provide collapse rescue services to the remainder of NYC. FDNY’s Rescue 3 apparatus and collapse unit and equipment were significantly damaged in the collapse.

FEMA USAR personnel implemented the concept of a Rapid Response TF at the WTC incident. CA-TF3 was assigned to add vehicles and supplemental equipment to its standard equipment cache so it could assist and supplement FDNY in delivering technical rescue collapse services to NYC citizens in case of an unrelated building collapse or a secondary terrorist attack.

CA-TF3 and subsequent TFs assigned to this mission were split into two equal elements of 31 members each. The equipment cache and vehicles were divided, and the Rapid Response TF operated out of two locations. One element was available for service from the Javits Center BOO in Manhattan; the second element was quartered at Fort Totten, a military installation in the Borough of Queens. This provided the City of New York with a supplemental local response capability until FDNY Special Operations Command could restore its capabilities for collapse rescue operational equipment.

USAR TF DEPLOYMENT: PHASE 3

As the search and rescue operations began a transition from rescue to recovery operations, Phase 3 of USAR TF deployment and engagement was initiated. Phase 2 TFs began to demobilize. Nebraska TF-1 (NE-TF1) arrived in NYC on September 25, followed by Nevada TF-1 (NE-TF1) on September 27. California TF-4 (CA-TF4), the final TF deployed, arrived in New York on September 28. The primary mission for TFs in Phase 3 was to staff the Rapid Response TF elements and to provide technical equipment and support to FDNY at the collapse site. CA-TF4, the last TF engaged on the site, completed operations on October 6.

INTEGRATION OF NON-FEMA USAR TFs

New Jersey TF1 deployed to NYC on September 11, and Puerto Rico TF-1 deployed on September 13. Both TFs staged alongside FEMA TFs at the Javits Center BOO. Neither was, or is, part of the FEMA USAR National Response System but is modeled after the federal TFs, having a similar roster, equipment, and training. These TFs technically did not come under IST’s command and control, but IST coordinated their operations at the request of FDNY.

Twenty FEMA USAR TFs operated at the WTC site over a period of 26 days. During the course of a phased demobilization of the IST, the last IST member departed NYC on October 26.

The skills and experience FEMA USAR IST and TF members gained were invaluable and will be used to help make their local departments and the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System more effective and better prepared for future incidents.

Firefighters and other rescue workers usually respond anonymously to incidents and rarely have personal connections to the victims. Under normal circumstances, New York TF1 would have been activated as a local asset for this incident and would have been the first USAR TF engaged. A significant number of FDNY and NYPD members who were members of New York’s FEMA USAR TF1 were killed in the collapse.

Even though TFs responded great distances from all parts of the country, responding USAR personnel knew many of New York-TF1’s members because they worked together at previous USAR TF deployments, administrative meetings, and training initiatives. A great irony of the federal USAR response to the WTC collapse was that one of the most influential leaders in the national USAR system, FDNY Deputy Chief Ray Downey, was killed in the collapse and that the system he worked so hard to develop and improve was activated not with him but for him and for so many of his coworkers.

FRED ENDRIKAT, a 28-year veteran of the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, currently serves as a lieutenant in Rescue Company 1 and serves as the senior task force leader for Pennsylvania USAR TF1. In November 2001, he was named as the National Urban Search and Rescue TF leaders representative, filling the void left by the tragic loss of Deputy Chief Ray Downey of the Fire Department of New York, who was killed at the World Trade Center (WTC). He is a member of the FEMA National USAR Response System Advisory Committee. Endrikat was deployed to the WTC by the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue National Response System on September 11, 2001, and remained in New York for 40 days. He served as the operations chief for the Incident Support Team, supervising all field operations for FEMA USAR TFs deployed to the WTC site.

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