New York Task Force 1 Response

By Joe Downey

New york task force 1 (ny-TF1) received an activation order on January 13, 2010, to prepare its cache to respond to Haiti. An 80-member type 1 heavy rescue team was rostered throughout the night, and members reported on January 14. There are 19 specialty positions filled by members from the Fire Department of New York, the New York Police Department, and EMS. Our activation orders stated that NY-TF1 would support USAID/OFDA activities in Haiti. This deployment was unusual because NY-TF1 is not an international task force within the FEMA system. California Task Force 2 and Virginia Task Force 1 are the only international task forces in the Urban Search and Rescue System. Both teams were activated immediately and were on the ground working in Haiti. The magnitude of the event required a tremendous amount of resources, and the United States would send four additional teams with the two international teams.

Before you can fly on a military airframe, your load (equipment, tools, and vehicles) needs to be certified. Every chemical and flammable liquid needs to be documented on hazardous declarations, and copies must be submitted to the load master. If you do not properly pack your equipment, the team could be grounded. NY-TF1 logistic managers and specialists have spent hundreds of hours of research to make sure we would be able to fly without any problems. This time and effort allowed NY-TF1 to load the C-17 airframes without any difficulties.

(1) The Caribbean Supermarket was a five- to six-story building that pancake collapsed with survivors trapped within voids. (Photos courtesy of NYTF-1.)

Because of the limited number of airframes available and the many agencies requesting military transport, NY-TF1 did not depart until January 16. During the wait time, team managers prepared the team for operations in Haiti. Drills were conducted on international marking systems and GPS, and the structural specialist reviewed building construction in Haiti. The team was divided into two teams—Red and Blue. Each team was identical in composition and would allow NY-TF1 to work around the clock in Haiti if needed. The Department of Defense supplied two C-17 airframes to transport the team members, 100,000 pounds of equipment, and five vehicles (two pickup trucks, one SUV, and a passenger van). The vehicles proved extremely valuable in Haiti.

Transportation was one of the major obstacles for the many international and U.S. teams. If you did not bring your own vehicles, teams had trouble securing vehicles to transport them into Port-au-Prince. Many teams relied on the United Nations (UN) military trucks to move their members and equipment.

NY-TF1 also brought a forklift to move the pallets of equipment and tools (which weigh 5,000 to 10,000 pounds) from the airframes to the base of operations (BoO) at Aeroport International Toussant Louventure. The forklift saved our members from expending their energy in the 90ºF heat moving the multiple boxes of tools, equipment, and supplies by hand.

(2) A 28-year-old Haitian man was removed from a void in the collapse of the Caribbean Supermarket four days after the earthquake.

NY-TF1 set up the BoO about 150 yards from the airport runway. Teams are required to be self-sufficient for three days when operating at an event in the United States. Considering the information we had and the lack of infrastructure and support in Haiti, we took a seven-day supply of food and water.

We prepared for the worst, which proved significant, because there was very little support. We reported to the On-Site Operations Coordination Center (OSOCC), which operated under the United Nations Disaster Assistance Coordination Team (UNDAC).

At our first briefing we were told there was no transportation, no communication, and no water or food; teams were to operate only during daylight hours because of concern for violence. The UN would provide transportation and security if available. 


As we set up the BoO, our technical information specialist scouted out the airport looking for intelligence and to gain information on what was happening. There was a convincing report of people trapped in the Caribbean Supermarket about 20 minutes from the airport. We reported this information to the OSOCC and requested permission to respond. The logistics specialists loaded three vehicles with equipment and tools, and our Blue Recon Team went to investigate. We had been in Haiti for eight hours.

As we traveled on a main road, we had our first experience with the destruction of the many communities we passed through. There were collapsed buildings everywhere; debris filled the streets. The only lights were from fires burning. Mobs of people gathered in streets, on sidewalks, and in any open areas. Nothing could prepare us for the images we saw on our first night in Port-au-Prince.

(3) The collapse of homes on hills destroyed vehicles and blocked many roads in Port-au-Prince.

After navigating through the destruction, we arrived at the Caribbean Market in Petionville. We saw what appeared to be a five- to six-story building pancake collapse. The first impression was there would be very little we could do without heavy machinery. As we surveyed all exposures, we found other teams operating on top of the collapsed market. FL-TF2 and international teams from Turkey, Mexico, and Israel had been working at this site and were trying to locate survivors. NY-TF1 requested the complement of the Blue Team from the BoO and additional tools and equipment. We then assisted with locating the victims.

Rescuers attacked the market from all sides. They attempted to reach the survivors from the top and sides, which proved difficult because of the amount of collapsed debris and the pancake collapse. There were some voids, but none provided direct access to the trapped survivors. Members decided to try from underneath the 40-foot pile of rubble. There was a loading dock entrance that provided access to the basement.

Once inside the basement, the structural specialist evaluated the stability of the ceiling and supports and gave the green light to operate. The basement had a 25-foot-high ceiling, and members had to operate off the steel storage racks that had food, water, and products on them for the store above.

(4) One of thousands of collapsed structures in Port-au-Prince.

Members were able to make contact with the survivors who were confirmed trapped on the floor above the basement. The first task was to drill a hole in the basement ceiling and put a search camera into it to see if we were operating in the correct location. It took some time to get a two-inch circular hole into the concrete ceiling. We were fortunate that there was a walk-in freezer right below the area the members would be breaking through. The only drawback was that there was only a 21⁄2- to three-foot distance from the top of the walk-in freezer to the ceiling. Members would be operating on their backs working the tools over their heads.

Every 10 to 15 minutes, members from NY-TF1, FL-TF2, and the international teams rotated personnel. We used hammer drills, chippers, and rebar cutters for the next five hours to break through the thick reinforced concrete ceiling. It was time-consuming and exhausting work, but the satisfaction of knowing there were survivors above kept the operation moving smoothly.

As we expanded the hole, we were able to get members into the opening and make contact with the survivors. We first encountered a 12-year-old girl whose legs were pinned under debris. Before we would move her, we had a doctor get into the void and evaluate her condition. Because she had been pinned for more than four days, there was a concern about crush syndrome. The doctor felt that we should get her out as soon as possible; once she was removed, paramedics would start an IV to counteract any complications from the entrapment.

Within the void with this girl were her mom and an aunt, who were deceased, and a 28-year-old Haitian man. He was not trapped under any debris but was encased by the walls, ceilings, and stock from the store. He was able to climb through the hole under his own power.

(5) NY-TF1 members prepare listening devices capable of detecting both acoustic and seismic sounds.

While removing the first two survivors, members made contact with a woman whom they heard but did not see. It took the members operating in the void another hour to remove the collapsed material around this woman. She was an American citizen who was trapped in a kneeling position and could only move her upper body. Once again, before we completely freed her, the doctor evaluated her. It was difficult and painful for her to try and straighten her legs because they had been in the kneeling position for more than four days.

All of the survivors were in good spirits and extremely hungry, and some suffered broken bones. Once we made contact, the first thing we did was to supply them with bottled water. The three survivors found within tons of rubble were alive because the racks in the supermarket held up enough debris to create voids. There were many more victims in the market who did not survive.

(6) Members of NY-TF1 and VA-TF2 size up the collapse of Kiki and Sabrina’s home leveled by the earthquake.

At this point, the sun was rising. The team had operated for more than 12 hours through the night with FL-TF2 and returned to the BoO. It was a great way to start our mission and extremely rewarding for all teams operating that evening. 


On January 17, NY-TF1’s Red Team received an assignment to perform operations at the MHQ Christopher Hotel and Canapé Vearce building that housed UN employees. On arrival, the team found VA-TF2 operating, so it headed to the Canapé Vearce building nearby. NY-TF1 located a UN security guard trapped in a three- to four-story building on a hill. Prior to NY-TF1’s arrival, this security guard had discharged his gun to alert rescuers that he was trapped and alive. Members used the search and rescue dogs as well as listening devices to locate him. A rescue team from the Republic of Taiwan worked with NY-TF1 in the delayering of masonry to remove the 54-year-old Haitian man. He suffered serious injuries but survived.

Over the next few days, our team put in long days scouring the 50 square miles of destruction. Thousands of buildings were compromised or had totally pancake collapsed. Almost every building was a masonry structure. Some of the better built buildings had reinforcements, but most were unreinforced masonry. The connection points where the columns met the floors were very weak, which caused most buildings to fall like a house of cards. The masonry was a dry mix, which proved extremely brittle. We were able to breach and break through the majority of the masonry we encountered with lightweight chippers and hammers as well as mauls.

(7) The void where Kiki and his sister Sabrina survived. Two other siblings, unfortunately, perished in the collapsed home.

There was a large area to cover each day, and the search managers had developed an operational plan. We needed to try and reach survivors without spending too much time at each location. As we searched the many neighborhoods, we relied on the residents to give us information. If there were indications that survivors were at a location, the team started with a reconnaissance. The search dogs were then deployed, followed by special listening devices and search cameras to explore voids. We searched many buildings following these procedures. The unfortunate reality was that we found a high number of deceased. There were no resources to move the dead, so the only thing we could do was treat them with respect and mark the location.

(8) Kiki is removed from his collapsed home by members of NY-TF1 and VA-TF2 after spending seven days trapped within a void with his sister Sabrina.

We were finishing up our searches on January 19 when a Haitian police officer came over to our convoy and told us there was a father digging out his kids from a collapsed home not too far from where we were. On arrival, we encountered a father with a crowbar trying to remove three floors of rubble on top of his two kids. The search team specialist used a search camera in a void and was able to see a young boy in a crouched position about 12 feet from the opening. Within that void, members were able to tie a water bottle to a long stick and send it to the young boy. The members operating the search camera were able to view this young boy, named Kiki, drinking the water. At this time, we had to decide if we would tunnel horizontally through the void we had with the camera or to go on top of the pile and delayer from above. We opted to delayer from above.

Members first used a tape measure in the void with the camera to identify a location to begin removing debris and used chipping hammers, breakers, and mauls to break up the masonry floors. The members not digging formed bucket brigades to remove the debris. NY-TF1 and VA-TF2 personnel rotated every 10 to 15 minutes. Team managers were responsible for supervising the operation and keeping the workers fresh and safe. Staffing was not the issue here—the difficult part was keeping those not directly involved away from the operation. The adrenaline level was high, and everyone was excited to participate in this rescue seven days after the earthquake. Both teams did a tremendous job working together for the next four hours. The location we chose was perfect—the opening was directly over Kiki. Kiki was positioned in a void but amazingly had no injuries. Once the opening was large enough, Kiki climbed out of the opening by himself. His sister Sabrina was separated from him by a chair in the same void. Members removed the steel chair, and Sabrina miraculously climbed out of the opening. This was one of the most rewarding and fulfilling operations we had experienced. These two children lived for more than a week in a tight void without any food or water.

(9) Kiki greets the world with his infectious smile and amazing resiliency.

These two children and the many Haitians trapped showed the world how strong and resilient they were. It was a humbling experience for all of us who operated the eight days to see how many of the Haitian people—who didn’t have much—lost everything. They embraced us during the time we were searching for their loved ones. It was equally impressive to see them try and get back to their normal lives. It was hard to comprehend the enormity of this earthquake: 230,000 people are estimated dead, with more than one million living on the streets. 

NY-TF1 Search Strategies and Tactics 

By Tom Donnelly

Search operations are at the core of an Urban Search and Rescue Task Force mission. In the simplest terms, if victims can’t be located, they can’t be rescued.

Task Forces must be able to tailor search strategy to fit the conditions they face, such as when NY-TF1 deployed to Haiti. Most FEMA Search Operation Guidelines are based on a disaster occurring within the United States. When deploying to a foreign country, operations fall under the guidelines of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), where the guidelines differ somewhat based on different countries deploying to a foreign country. INSARAG guidelines aim to provide an effective search methodology for the affected country to provide effective search and rescue operations involving numerous foreign countries during a major urban disaster.

(1) Search team members confer on the search strategy for a high-probability target—in this case, a college dormitory. (Photos courtesy of NY-TF1.)

Using the daily operational assignment, NY-TF1 would move into a sector and do the following:

1 Act on intelligence received from other U.S. Task Forces or United Nations intelligence based on reports of victims trapped.

2 Once in the geographic sector, act on intelligence received from local residents, merchants, and media on where civilians may be entombed in structures.

3 Identify target structures and conduct high-coverage searches.

4 Mark searched structures with the international search symbol.

Search resources used are divided into three main categories: Physical Search, Technical Search, and Canine Search. NY-TF1 personnel blended all three into a workable operation that succeeded very well. The ability to conduct physical search operations as part of a hasty search is a fast-paced and methodical search of an assigned area in an attempt to locate entombed victims who can be successfully rescued from a structure. This search is simultaneously conducted with a recon of the assigned sector. The benefits of the physical hasty search are that it does not require specialized equipment and personnel rely on basic fundamental search techniques using around-the-clock callout and void searches. This tactic worked well for NY-TF1 during daylight hours and was very conducive to search in the widespread areas to which we were frequently assigned.

(2) The building marking system on completion of a structure search. International symbols differ from the U.S. FEMA marking system.

NY-TF1 also used canines extensively. A certified canine search can cover a lot of ground in a short time; the canine will indicate the detection of a live human scent of a buried victim by focused barking (bark alert) at the scent source. The primary function of the canines is to detect live victims. Canines will give subtle indications of human remains. The best working conditions for a canine are generally during dawn to dusk while a scent is rising, generally with very limited personnel. Live human scent generally channels around solid slabs, broken concrete, and debris; canines will indicate where the scent is emerging from, not necessarily where the victim is. Continued search operations are necessary to pinpoint exact victim location.

NY-TF1 canines were used during searches of numerous structures. Such operations can be complex. The canine’s well-being must be continually evaluated; a tired or injured canine is not effective for the overall search operations.

(3) Recon teams working on foot in local neighborhoods conduct hasty/hail searches of collapsed structures.

Obtaining available and reliable information on areas of the city, various structures, and possible victim location is critical to developing a usable search plan. Sorting out this information using mapping and GPS devices was critical to NY-TF1’s successful search operation. Our communication specialists were able to download available data from several sources and relay that information to a forward communications link where reconnaissance search teams were operating. Downloading critical data on structural features, GPS coordinates, and grid map locations made the search plan more logical as sectors were covered. The communication specialists also were able to navigate routes to various structures as well as directions to and from the base camp for each operational period. Their work was critical to the overall search mission given the size of the city and the complexity and magnitude of the damage to the infrastructure.

(4) Use of search cameras and listening devices proved extremely successful during operations where live victims were rescued.

We made quick individual sketch maps of structures where rescues were ongoing, pointing out structure features, points of entry, hazards, possible victim location, and so on. This information was shared with other task forces.

The systematic search planning process that we used during the Haiti deployment involved an overall strategy of coordinating with other task forces to reduce confusion, have smoother work sites, and reduce overlapping searches; use a detailed building marking system; and execute search mission assignments. This resulted in a coordinated, successful search operation that saved civilian lives and searched large areas of a city that was devastated by an earthquake, fulfilling the very mission for which the Task Forces were created.

(5) Canine assets were very effective in the search process. The blending of the physical, technical, and canine searches allowed for an effective search plan.

TOM DONNELLY is a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), where he has served for 20 years and is assigned to Rescue Company 1. He is a member of FEMA NY-TF1 and is the team’s search manager. He is an instructor at the FDNY Technical Rescue School and has taught at the Suffolk County Fire Academy for 18 years. He has been a member of the Deer Park (NY) Volunteer Fire Department for 25 years. He is a contributor to Fire Engineering. He has a B.S. degree from Saint Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, New York.

Joe Downey, a 25-year veteran with the Fire Department of New York, is a battalion chief in the Rescue Battalion of Special Operations Command. He had been a firefighter in Squad 1, a lieutenant of Rescue 2, and a captain of Squad 18. He has been a member of NY-TF1’s Urban Search and Rescue Team since its inception in 1991 and has been a task force leader for NY-TF1 for the past seven years. 

More Fire Engineering Issue Articles
Fire Engineering Archives 

No posts to display