USAR IST: Providing Search and Rescue Support in Oklahoma City

USAR IST: Providing Search and Rescue Support in Oklahoma City


Shortly after 0900 hours PST on April 19, 1995, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) organized and dispatched one of its Urban Search and Rescue Incident Support Teams (IST) in response to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The IST was needed to coordinate and manage the several incoming National Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Forces activated to assist in the rescue efforts at the Murrah Building.

Upon notice of the event, two USAR Task Forces initially were put on alert and subsequently activated by FEMA–from the Phoenix and Sacramento City fire departments. Simultaneously, FEMA activated an IST, including Assistant Chief Kim Zagaris, California Office of Emergency Services Fire and Rescue Division; Division Chief Jim Hone, Santa Monica (CA) Fire Department; Battalion Chief Ray Downey, City of New York (NY) Fire Department Special Operations Section; Lieutenant Tom Carr, Montgomery County (MD) Fire Department; Assistant Chief Jim Strickland, Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department; and me. By the end of the incident, our numbers increased to 75 personnel.

Hone, Zagaris, and I arrived at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City at 2334 hours local time, along with the Sacramento City Task Force. Other IST members arrived and, after a quick briefing from the Air Force liaison officer regarding the schedule of other incoming resources and specifics about logistical support issues, we proceeded to the Oklahoma City Fire Department (OCFD) Command Post (CP). This CP was located in the parking lot of the Southwestern Bell Building, two blocks north of the bombed Murrah Building. The Phoenix team`s command staff had arrived there shortly before us; and Chiefs Steve Storment, Dennis Compton, and Rich Wolfe already were consulting OCFD officials. They were discussing the establishment of a unified command structure with the many other agencies on scene, each of which had its own CP established. The chiefs also were working closely with the OCFD to establish a personnel accountability system. To this point, there was some question as to the total number of personnel on scene, the number of personnel assigned, and who had been released. It then was decided that the Phoenix and Sacramento City teams would set up their base of operations together in the Southwestern Bell Building. Each then secured a forward logistical support base in a parking garage one block from the scene. Following a quick briefing of the task forces, we proceeded to the bombed building.


We were assigned to the OCFD`s Rescue Operations Section. At 0230 hours we were at the building and met with OCFD District Chief Ron Moss, the assigned rescue operations commander since the inception of the incident. As he briefed us, we were joined by IST members and task force leaders.

As we looked up at the building, we were completely consumed by the enormity of the situation. We immediately noticed that the Murrah Building was not the only structure damaged by the blast. Several other buildings on the block sustained severe damage and would have to be included in our operational plan. In addition, we observed multiple structural and nonstructural hazards, extensive heavy equipment and hand crew operations, and several groups of rescuers in different stages of rest and rehab.

Moss, joined by OCFD Special Operations Chief Mike Shannon, gave us a situation update and reviewed what had been accomplished up to that point. The OCFD, along with paramedics, police officers, and hundreds of convergent volunteers, had completed an impressive task during the first day of the incident, accounting for all live and dead victims in the street and on floors three through nine. Moss and Shannon took us on a tour of the complete structure, where we got a strong sense of the complexity of the situation and a good view of continuing operations.


To help us get a better handle on the scope of operations, we requested from Moss additional information on the various current assignments and operational objectives; the approximate number of personnel assigned on the building`s north-side debris pile and inside the structure; what, if any, evacuation procedures had been established; and if a personnel accountability system had been instituted on scene. A plan of action was then jointly developed that would integrate the USAR Task Forces into the search and rescue efforts being conducted by the OCFD and other mutual-aid resources. As we discussed the plan of action with Moss, the IST made several suggestions based on initial observations.

Shut down trackhoe operations next to Column 12. There was concern that if the trackhoe accidentally clipped Column 12, it could cause additional damage to the structure or a secondary collapse.

Temporarily suspend all other operations to allow for the development of a secure perimeter with a single point of entry.

Develop an Incident Action Plan (IAP), with the first joint operational period beginning at 0600 hours.

Establish an effective traffic pattern for heavy equipment and support vehicles.

Establish staging and rehab areas outside of the perimeter for incoming and resting resources.

Establish a standard evacuation signal and personnel accountability system.

Moss agreed with the various suggestions and issued orders to begin implementation. The IST then set in place its incident command structure, which would mirror that of the OCFD as closely as possible–for example, the OCFD incident commander would be mirrored by the IST leader, and the OCFD operations chief would be mirrored by the IST operations chief. I was named IST leader. Downey was assigned IST operations chief, assisted by Hone and later by Technical Specialists Chief Mike McGroarty of the La Habra (CA) Fire Department and Captain Don Shawver of the Arcadia (CA) Fire Department. Zagaris was assigned chief of the IST Planning Section, and Carr was assigned chief of the IST Logistics Section. Strickland assumed the role of liaison officer between the IST and OCFD Command. In addition, Dennis Compton remained at the OCFD Command Post to provide a liaison and coordination function there.

At daybreak on Day Two of the incident, we started the first joint operational period. An IAP was developed and distributed to the command staffs of the OCFD and the IST, as well as to task force leaders. Also, during the night the IST requested through FEMA the immediate activation of four additional task forces. It was clear to the IST that this operation would go on for days and would require 24-hour operations. The IAP was established for the first joint 12-hour operational period of 0600-1800 on April 20 and included the following operational objectives:

1. Provide for the safety of all personnel.

2. Conduct a thorough search of the basement and first, second, and third floors.

3. Identify the number of people missing by agency and work location.

4. Continue the rescue of victims and the removal of the deceased.

5. Complete a base of operations for the Phoenix and Sacramento City task forces.

6. Complete a base of operations for the IST.

7. Continue to support OCFD operations.

In addition, the IAP included a general safety message, an organizational assignment list for both OCFD and IST command staffs, an incident communications plan, a medical plan, a weather report, a building schematic, and a general map of the incident area.

As the next few days progressed, operational objectives changed as assignments were completed and victims were identified. Throughout the incident, however, certain operational objectives remained constant. First was the continual safety of all personnel; second was the continual structural evaluation and stabilization of the structure; third was the continual search for and accounting of all victims; and last was the continual monitoring and, if necessary, clearing of all overhead hazards.


It became abundantly clear that the initial IST was not consistent with the size and complexity of this incident. As early as the morning of April 20th, several additional IST personnel were ordered up through FEMA to support operations. By the end of Day Two, deputy IST command staff positions were established and additional specialists in operations, planning, logistics, and administration/finance were in place and operational. Battalion Chief Mike Tamillow of the Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department was named deputy IST leader. Battalion Chief Rick Risdon of the Menlo Park (CA) Fire Department was named deputy chief of IST Operations and was assisted by Captain Mike Parrish of the Riverside City (CA) Fire Department and Battalion Chief Chase Sargent of the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department. In addition, Tom Minor of the Puget Sound (WA) USAR Task Force was named deputy IST plans chief and Captain Todd Dubler of the San Diego City (CA) Fire Department USAR Task Force was named deputy IST logistics chief. These individuals assumed command of the night shift IST operations, allowing the IST to operate two 12-hour operational periods for 24-hour coverage. For more than two weeks, coverage was provided 24 hours a day, under a form of unified command with the IST and OCFD staffs. In all, 25 12-hour operational periods would be conducted prior to the termination of operations.

As the incident progressed, it became evident that other technical specialists would be needed to support operations. Structural Engineers David Hammond and John Osteraas, both from Menlo Park, California, were brought in to provide technical advice and recommendations to the IST on building stabilization and shoring operations. They were assisted by Firefighter John O`Connell from FDNY. O`Connell was initially assigned to support the planning section but eventually was assigned as an advisor for shoring operations due to his extensive background in that discipline. The IST engineers were assisted by USAR engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who provided an invaluable service in building monitoring and cataloging specific information. The IST also established a medical advisor specialist position, consisting of physicians who provided a liaison function between USAR resources and local EMS Command. They ensured that the issues of health and safety for rescue personnel were being addressed and resolved and coordinated the arrival and use of specialists from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). CDC personnel provided invaluable information and clarification on the potential hazards from building asbestos and biohazards resulting from the body fluid accumulation and fumes emitted from decomposing bodies. In addition, IST medical specialists worked closely with State Department of Health officials to ensure that the various food vendors at the scene met some sort of health standard so that rescue personnel would not get sick from undercooked or contaminated foods. Finally, they evaluated decontamination protocols and monitored decontamination stations established at various spots outside the building.

A specialized Geographic Information System (GIS) Mapping Team out of the California Office of Emergency Services was requested. This team typically maps fire lines and topography and the extent of damage following earthquakes and was able to take the multitude of information obtained by the IST Planning Section, the Oklahoma City Building Department, Southwestern Bell, and the rescue teams and establish several 3-D models of the Murrah Building. The models showed victim locations, prior to explosion, at their respective work stations, in a spatial orientation, and each victim`s location after the explosion and collapse. This information was enlightening to the Rescue Operations Section. It gave Plans and Operations a clearer direction in which to proceed and concentrate search and rescue efforts. Eventually, Operations, working closely with Charles Smith of the Baton Rouge (LA) Medical Examiner`s Office and the Disaster Mortuary Service, could identify a victim prior to extrication. In addition, GIS mappers provided precise building schematics; a large wall drawing for briefings; and a computerized historical catalog of shoring type and location by floor, victim-find locations by floor, and other pertinent information related to overall operations.

It is important to reiterate that the OCFD never relinquished the ultimate incident command or final authority to approve or disapprove incident objectives and plans to the IST. The IST and the OCFD continued to work very closely throughout the incident to set the priorities and the IAP into action. Clearly, there were difficult and confusing moments–particularly within the first few days. However, by Day Four we were all working as one large department and forged strong, long-lasting bonds.

As each operational period came to an end, a new IAP outlining the objectives for the next 12 hours was established. At each shift change, the IST and OCFD Command staff held an operational briefing. Each briefing included the Command and general staff, IST and OCFD, the incoming and outgoing task force leaders, FBI and FEMA representatives, technical specialists, and the heavy equipment and engineering contractors. Briefings, run by the IST Planning Section, lasted for approximately 15 minutes. Accomplishments from the previous shift were reviewed, as were problems and other pertinent issues. The operational objectives for the next operational period then were reviewed, followed by special reports from Operations, Logistics, Planning, and IC/IST Command. The FBI and other key agencies present also had time to report or clarify issues.


This was the most complex and challenging incident any of us had ever encountered. It was extremely stressful. Each decision had to be made carefully due to the potential for secondary collapse and injury to rescue personnel. The building was literally a “house of cards.” If a slab of concrete or some other debris were removed incorrectly, it could cause secondary collapse of a part of or the entire structure. Rescuer safety was of paramount importance and was at the forefront of every decision. The poor integrity of the building, along with occasional load shifts of debris, made for very difficult working conditions.

Oklahoma weather also played a significant role in the operational tactics. Coming from California, where seasons and weather patterns are fairly predictable, I found it frustrating to deal with weather changes every hour. In all, we dealt with wind gusts of up to 70 miles an hour, heavy rains, hail, lightning and thunder, 20-degree temperature drops, extensive wind chill, and an impending tornado. At one point, Shannon stated, “If you don`t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait 10 minutes and it will change.” He was right.

Still, however, we were in a rescue mode. There was no guarantee that all victims were dead. The potential of finding someone alive in a void space still existed. We continually considered “the risk vs. the gain” as we established task assignments and sent rescuers into the building.

Many times daily operational objectives and assigned tasks had to be altered or slowed. Unfortunately, the poor structural condition of the building, the incorporation of different mutual-aid resources, the weather changes, two additional bomb threats, and the complexities of simultaneous internal and external operations affected our ability to execute our plans and forced a transition from a “flexible” management style to a “fluid” management style. Still, however, the commitment to strong incident command principles ensured that all of the objectives were met, all the victims were accounted for, 24-hour operations were maintained, and no serious rescuer injuries occurred–all during an unprecedented pace and under the most adverse conditions imaginable.

The IST also had the responsibility of providing special briefings to political figures and officials, including senators and congressmen, the Speaker of the House, the governor, and the President of the United States. It was important that the IST keep FEMA headquarters in Washington D.C. informed, and it worked closely with the federal Multi-Agency Coordination Center (MACC) set up at the convention center. The MACC was established to help coordinate the various agencies on scene and support operations.


Throughout the incident, several additional USAR Task Forces were brought in. In all, 11 of them responded from around the United States. Each worked between six and eight days before being given a 24-hour rest and rehab period; then each was demobilized and sent home. The IST Logistics Section provided for the needs and resupply of all of the task forces. Besides the first two USAR Task Forces, which were housed at the Southwestern Bell Building, the remaining task forces set up their base of operations at the Myriad Convention Center, approximately four blocks from the scene. IST Logistics provided for all ground transportation and established a base of logistical support at the convention center. Resupply items such as extra rescue tools, bits, blades, and other support items were stockpiled there for use by the task forces. In addition, several vendors were brought in and set up shop at this location. They were able to perform general maintenance and rehab on tools and other pieces of equipment and, if needed, supply items ordered throughout the incident.

As task forces completed their tour of duty and prepared to return home, they had to clean and package all of the equipment they had brought with them. Their demobilization also had to be coordinated with the Department of Defense, which provided all the air transportation. The IST established yet another technical specialist position. Rick Helton, from U.S. Army Forces Command Headquarters, and Paul Dillion, from the Denver (CO) Fire Department USAR Task Force, were brought in as part of Logistics to coordinate all of the demobilization activities. As demobilized task forces left, new task forces arrived. This became an operation in itself. Helton and Dillion were instrumental in arranging for new aircraft, setting departure schedules for outbound teams, and meeting and briefing arriving teams. They provided updates at shift changes and during briefings and established the demobilization plan that was included as part of the IAP.


As operations progressed, we entered the second week of the incident. IST and OCFD Command constantly weighed the issue of risk vs. gain. While the safety of rescuers was always of paramount importance, it eventually became one of the most critical factors. OCFD Command had to determine a plan for shifting from a “rescue” to a “recovery” mode. The OCFD asked the IST for some suggestions to help make the decision. Several considerations had to be taken into account. At the time of the explosion, several hundred people were reported to be in the building. Just under a hundred had been recovered up to this point, and we still did not have a 100-percent accurate list of the missing. We knew that research following earthquakes demonstrated that the first 24 to 48 hours represented the greatest potential for lifesaving and victim survival following structural collapse. As each hour and day passes, victim survival rates fall exponentially. Still, there had been many documented live saves in pancake building collapses, some up to two weeks after the collapse. Unfortunately, in this case the explosion caused greater concrete damage and loss of material integrity than would be seen in a concrete building collapse following an earthquake. In the earthquake scenario, the fractures in the concrete slabs would be much less, resulting in a greater number of void spaces. In this situation, however, the extensive number of fractures in the concrete floors and columns caused them to pancake tightly together, compressing layers and reducing the number of potential void spaces. In addition, the effects of the direct blast as well as severe weather conditions greatly minimized victim survival rates. Nevertheless, as floor layers and debris were peeled back, some void spaces were discovered.

Considering all this information, the greatest challenge for us at this point was making that decision to switch from rescue to recovery, suspending USAR operations and disengaging all remaining task forces. We looked closely at several other issues to help us with this decision.

1. What was the potential for any additional live finds?

2. How many victims still remained trapped?

3. What would the public reaction be if demolition of the building was begun while large numbers of victims still remained unaccounted for?

4. What were the legal ramifications if bodies of the missing persons were not recovered?

5. How many resources (special equipment or technical specialists) were available to accomplish the remaining tasks?

6. What were the condition and status of the OCFD available manpower resources?

7. Did any other special circumstances need to be taken into account?

We also reviewed several other incidents involving complicated collapse of concrete structures from events around the world to help in the decision-making process. We considered the total number of days search and rescue efforts were conducted at these incidents and how many victims were recovered, as well as their status. Still, this was the first bombing of this magnitude any of us had encountered. The World Trade Center Bombing in 1993 was our only benchmark, and it was very different.

At this point, we were in Day Seven of the search and rescue activities. The first seven days were spent removing debris and developing safe zones. All accessible areas in the collapse, starting at the street level and from floors one through three, as well as in the interior of the building from floor three to the ground floor, were searched and cleared. Given these facts, the low numbers of victims recovered to date from the areas mentioned in comparison with the estimated number of victims reported in the building at the time of the explosion indicated that a great number of unaccounted-for victims still remained, trapped deep inside the building. The most recent victim locations detected at this time, in “the Pit” area at 1500 hours on April 26, indicated that we were reaching the areas where multiple victims were entombed. This was the area where safety was critical and technical expertise was necessary to remove the heavy concrete and associated entanglements to extricate victims.

The following recommendation was submitted to OCFD Command for consideration: Continue with USAR operations at the current level with a review at the end of Sunday night, 1800 hours on April 30, at which time a decision should be made to shift from a rescue to a recovery mode. This also would help in the decision to use and allocate additional rescue resources. Much progress had been made to date by all involved. Six USAR Task Forces were still committed, with two scheduled to be demobilized at 1800 hours on April 27, leaving four task forces to continue supporting OCFD operations.

Work continued at a feverish pace for an additional five days. Then, on April 30, it was decided to make the transition to a body-recovery operation. The hope of finding void spaces with live victims was nonexistent, and the concern for rescuer safety clearly outweighed the risk of continuing in a rescue mode. This was very difficult for the Command staff. As OCFD Fire Chief Gary Marrs made the announcement, a somber mood fell across all of us in the briefing room. Recovery of all remaining bodies would now be the priority, and all involved would still work at a demanding pace to accomplish this goal. However, heavy equipment would now play a larger role in debris removal, particularly in those areas in which it had become too hazardous for rescuers to work.

The IST worked to ensure the smooth demobilization of all but one USAR Task Force. The Orange County (CA) USAR team remained to assist with the recovery during the last few days of the operation. By Day 14, the operation was reduced to one of mostly crane picks and debris scoops. Eventually, the Orange County Task Force was demobilized, and the IST was reduced to only a few members. The small IST crew, along with a few members of the Orange County Task Force, was held back as a Technical Assistance Team to advise on heavy equipment operations; the job of recovering the last victims remained. Nighttime operations were halted due to safety concerns and the danger of nighttime heavy equipment operations. In actuality, the day care center was not reached until Day 15, when the last of the children was recovered.

In all, 161 victims were recovered from the building. All were accounted for, with the exception of two bodies buried under debris at the base of Column 22. The OCFD and the IST were aware of their presence; but because of the potential for a secondary collapse caused by removing the debris, it was decided to leave the bodies in place until the building was brought down by demolition crews, at which time they could safely be recovered.

All operations were concluded on May 5, 1995. The incident required 25 operational periods. Some 3,000 rescuers were involved–from Oklahoma City, surrounding mutual-aid cities, the state and federal government, volunteers, the private sector, and 11 USAR Task Forces.


The National Urban Search and Rescue Response System was validated by the response to the Oklahoma City Bombing.

USAR Task Forces and the Incident Support Team provided a rapid and effective capability to state and local authorities.

No singular agency can provide enough resources on its own to effectively mitigate such an incident. Analysis should be conducted and consideration given regarding the expansion of the number of operational USAR Task Forces in the National System.

An increase in local USAR (nontask force) capability should be encouraged and established throughout the country.

Consider the role of the IST in Oklahoma City and formalize it, expanding its incident management capability.

During an incident of this nature, decision making is critical. At times, the decisions will not be universally popular. However, decisions need to be made and quickly. Decision by group consensus does not work during these situations.

The incident command system is very effective for managing emergency operations. Following the guidelines of the ICS and ensuring that the principles are instituted throughout the organizational structure will keep all on track and retain flexibility so that any challenge can be met.

Effective communications are paramount to the success of an operation. It is critical that information is passed down and understood by every level of the organizational structure. Good planning and briefings are essential to coordinate operational objectives and ensure safe operations.

Training and practice are very important. Agencies should move toward “all risk” planning and preparedness. To say “That type of thing would never occur here” is very shortsighted and puts you at a disadvantage when the event does occur. You will perform as you train. Agencies that recognize the threat potential and spend funds to support realistic “all risk” training will always perform better than those who don`t.

During incidents of this nature, continual attention and consideration must be given to applying resources vs. obtaining final goals–i.e., “risk vs. gain.” Safety must be of paramount importance when assigning crews to meet the various tasks required to mitigate the situation. Still, however, the job needs to get done–and, unfortunately, usually under undesirable conditions. Incident managers in situations like this need to have the experience to make the right calls and be willing to consider in their decision making all aspects of information that may affect the direction of the incident. Input from planning staffs, technical experts, and political bodies as well as the impact on the public are important considerations in making the right decisions.

When conditions that result in multiple points of view prevail–such as the case of how to mitigate the Mother Slab–it is advantageous to appoint an “arbitrator” or “supervising” technical specialist to analyze the various views and all other related information. That person then can make a final recommendation to the incident commander or rescue operations chief. In most cases, the individual should possess the greatest expertise level relating to the situation in question. In the case of the Mother Slab and other structural concerns at the Murrah Building, the appointment of a supervising structural engineer as part of the IST command staff greatly assisted in coordinating other structural engineers and private contractors, providing one voice and one set of recommendations the IST leader and OCFD Command could work with in making final decisions.

Don`t get tunnel vision. Always try to keep your perspective of the “bigger picture” when managing your incident. n

The IST is just that–an incident support team. An open channel of communication between OCFD and FEMA personnel was essential. Pictured is an operational strategy meeting at IST Command with OCFD Chief Gary Marrs, OCFD Rescue Commander Michael Keeton, and IST members. (Photo courtesy of California OES Fire & Rescue.)

The IST Command Center. (Photo courtesy of California OES Fire & Rescue.)

A consultation between operations chiefs, OCFD`s Shannon and IST`s Downey. (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Fire Department.)

USAR Task Force structures specialists were constantly evaluating and monitoring the structural stability. (Photo courtesy of California OES Fire & Rescue.)

Briefings were held at every shift change. (Photo courtesy of California OES Fire & Rescue.)

Coordination between fire/rescue and law enforcement was critical at this incident. Here, IST Leader Mark Ghilarducci consults with an FBI officer. (Photo courtesy of California OES Fire & Rescue.)

MARK GHILARDUCCI is deputy chief of the Fire and Rescue Division of California`s Governor`s Office of Emergency Services. He is responsible for the Special Operations Section, which includes urban search and rescue operations, training, EMS, and hazardous materials. Ghilarducci manages all state-level program development and emergency response activities relating to the urban search and rescue aspects of the state`s Fire and Rescue Mutual Aid Response System, including the coordination of California`s eight multidisciplinary USAR Task Forces. He is an appointee to the National Advisory Committee for Urban Search and Rescue and chairs the subcommittee on Logistics Support and Equipment. Ghilarducci was the National Urban Search and Rescue Incident Support Team leader for the Oklahoma City Bombing.


The activation and mobilization of USAR Task Forces provide a significant capability for disaster response within this country. The task forces are multidisciplinary?consisting of the elements of search, rescue, medical, and technical capabilities?and provide a range of services following earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, and terrorist events. Twenty-six task forces are located throughout the country and comprise the National USAR Response System, the component of the Federal Response Plan known as Emergency Support Function #9 (ESF 9). The Incident Support Team is an integral part of the USAR Response System and is indentified as a component within FEMA?s Initial Response Resources, which are designed for lifesaving and life-sustaining operations. The IST is analogous to a Forest Service Type I Incident Management Team and is made up of specialists in the urban search and rescue and fire rescue disciplines.

The mission of the IST is to provide urban search and rescue-related management and coordination of National USAR resources. The IST also provides technical assistance, logistical support, and advice about USAR operations to fire, rescue, and public officials at the local, state, and federal levels. It can operate at various locations as dictated by the incident. It always operates in support of and under the auspices of the local or state incident command structure. The IST was developed following the guidelines of the ICS and operates consistently using the terminology and organizational structure of the ICS and the Federal and National USAR Response System. By design, IST members must be able to deploy anywhere within the United States and its territories within two hours of notification and be capable of operating for 24-hour periods.

The initial IST organized for the bombing was relatively small in comparison with the job that awaited the team. However, ISTs had only been activated a few times in the recent past, mostly following natural disasters. This was the first real test of a team?s ability to help manage an incident such as the Oklahoma City Bombing. n

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