Search Ops for Urban Disasters

Search Ops for Urban Disasters


Modern building collapse rescue started during World War II in England. Civilian trade people such as pipefitters, carpenters, mill-rights and nurses staffed rescue squads because they knew how to shore, rig, handle tools and provide medical care to trapped victims of the Blitz. Today, this skill set is basically unchanged. Building collapse rescue requires many non-traditional fire service skills, and coordinating them within this environment is a unique challenge.

Chief among these skills: search. You can be the most highly trained, equipped and capable rescue team, but if you can’t find the victims, you can’t rescue them. In this article, I’ll examine the topic of search as it pertains to the urban disaster environment.

Important: Search is much like medical triage, in that you’re trying to do the most good for the most people. In the beginning of an urban disaster incident, you’re searching for information as much as survivors. The information you collect will determine how effective your rescue will be.

Gathering Information (RECON)
Information gathering at disasters is in part determined by the type of incident. We classify incidents as open events (e.g., hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes) where the disaster occurs over a wide area that is undefined at the beginning of the search operation, and or as closed events (e.g., a building collapse) where the disaster is limited to one obvious area.

Open Events
During the first 24 hours after an event, our ability to send the right resource to where it’s needed is critical. You can only do this with accurate field intelligence. The first priority for open events: Establish the size of the disaster. To do this, you may need ground, boat and/or air transportation in order to tour the area and define the boundaries. Other priorities include:

  • Conduct building triage. We need to know not only how many buildings are affected, but which ones may contain live victims. This is based on the presence or absence of hazardous materials, the extent of damage, the type and use of the building and the time of day in which the event happened. Look for survivable voids–spaces created when floors, walls and ceilings come together, allowing a place for a victim to survive. Note: As you pre-plan for this type of emergency, you may wish to adopt a building triage team model based on the FEMA concept in which a structural engineer, a search/rescue person and a hazmat tech assess the probability of rescue opportunities.
  • Establish contact with high-risk facilities such as schools, hospitals, nursing homes, hotels and shelters, where loss of life could be concentrated. Find out right away if any processing plants or manufacturing facilities have had a release of chemicals.
  • Conduct windshield surveys (driving through the area and observing levels of damage) of neighborhoods. Documentation and mapping are major parts of this process. Be prepared to deal with closed-off roads due to debris or fleeing citizens.

Remember: Train staff to rapidly scan and measure for rescue opportunities. They must resist the temptation to stay and help; information in the first few hours is more valuable. Intel gathering is ongoing until the end of the incident.

Closed Event
The gathering of information during a closed event is different than an open event. You’ll be working with multiple investigation agencies to answer the following questions:

  • Did the building fall due to a failure in materials or craftsmanship?
  • Did something impact the building (like a vehicle or plane), or was it damaged by fire, or both?

A closed event may be criminal in nature. We may be tasked with looking for evidence in the debris. Every person (or piece of a person) we find is part of a possible murder scene. Before you remove victims, you may need to give the coroner access. Above all, make sure you’re briefed about the protocols in place, and that you observe them.

Customize Your Search
Your search tactics should be based on the type of incident as well as the actions that the civilians most likely took when the incident occurred. Determine what, if any, instructions or public education took place before the disaster. Were people encouraged to evacuate or shelter in place and stock up on supplies? What is the history of evacuation in the area? Some towns affected by seasonal disasters are used to evacuating; others are used to sheltering in place. Because of the difference in notification times, people who live in areas frequented by tornadoes often shelter in place, while residents who experience hurricanes are more likely to evacuate.

Tornado survivors are often found in basements; during hurricanes and floods survivors can often be found in attics. The rubble in the street after an earthquake (outside buildings) may be covering victims. Look for survivable voids created by parked cars or mailboxes. Take time to interview local residents and local police about who stayed and who did not. Make sure you have a legal mandate to conduct the level of search you have been assigned to accomplish.

Search Concepts & Definitions
To understand search operations, you and your team will need to work from certain shared definitions. These include:

  • Victim detection: Finding evidence that a victim is nearby, but their exact location is not yet apparent.
  • Victim location: Knowing the location of a victim.
  • Rapid/hasty search: A search conducted as soon as possible (within 24 hours) after the event to locate and evacuate as many lives as possible. It targets high-probability locations, quickly sweeping the area to find readily identifiable survivors using surface searches and audible cues. Rescues during this type of search are only performed if survivors are in immediate danger.
  • Primary search: Another fast-paced tactic, but not as fast as the rapid search, that’s completed within 48 hours on the ground or via boat (looking in doors and windows and entering when there are signs of victims). Canines or technical search tools may be applied. Primary searches target locations or buildings identified by a hasty/recon team as likely to contain survivors. Appropriate action (e.g., forcible entry) will be taken based on the rules of engagement identified by the local incident commander. Mark the structures using the standard USAR marking system (see photos).
  • Secondary search: There are two types of secondary search:  low coverage and high coverage. A low coverage search is a systematic search of every room/void space. A high coverage search is a slower, more detailed search, entering every building and room. Authorization for forcible entry may be required. Searchers may only be asked to locate dead bodies and not make removals. The difference between high and low coverage applies to large debris piles. In a low coverage assignment, you may be using heavy equipment to sift through a pile.
  • Call-out search: Searchers surround a rubble pile or partially collapsed building and one by one–ideally using blow horns but not essential–call loudly into the building, pausing to hear a reply. Tell anyone trapped to tap or call back. When you hear a reply, everyone points to where they think they hear it coming from to narrow down the area that should be searched. Note: Victims too weak or too young to respond will be missed with this technique, so apply it early.
  • Special Response Team (SRT): SRTs are used to investigate specific areas based on specific information typically concerning a concentration of life, such as a nursing home or school. Tip: Consider doing these at night. It will help keep daytime operations more manageable and provide extra personnel for intelligence gathering during daytime operations.

Note: In a disaster search, areas are determined “covered,” not “cleared.” Covered is used to denote the effort involved (number of resources + technique + time). Cleared has the connotation that the search efforts involved 100% of the area, which is never possible.  

In Real Life
Definitions and concepts are important and straightforward on paper, but in the field, they can get messy. Example: You respond to a tornado (open event) and you’re assigned to conduct a “primary search” of a residential neighborhood made up of single-family and multi-family dwellings. You instruct your crews to conduct the primary search as defined. During the assignment, a crew comes across a large four-story apartment building with interior entryways for individual apartments. This means the crew has no practical means to look in the windows of the upper floors and must enter the living spaces, right?

The answer is conditional: If it’s early after the storm, you may bypass the upper floors after calling out with loud speakers and getting no response. You do this in order to keep moving and cover ground. You should call back to your supervisor if you have any doubt, and get clarification. You may have to do this during every shift because the expectations will keep changing. If it is days after the event and people are re-occupying the building, you may just need to interview them to find out about possible missing persons. One method to try on a large multi-family or single-family complex is to employ what’s known as “active attractors.” To do this, line up your apparatus and turn on all the lights and sirens for a few moments, anticipating that if there’s anyone home, they will look out to see what’s going on.

A Note on K-9s
Search dogs are useful for searching work areas too unstable or too small for rescuers to access. They can also quickly cover large areas that would be very time-consuming to physically search. Further, they’re the only tool that can detect unconscious victims.

Alerts to possible victim detection via canine must be confirmed with another dog or technology, such as a search camera. Human scent will follow floors and debris patterns; the location the dog alerts on may only be the general area. If the victim is lightly buried, however, the dog could be accurate.

Note: Cool, damp weather can help hold victims’ scent trails as the smells rise through the rubble. Strong winds and hot weather limit dogs’ effectiveness.

Search Instruments
In addition to personnel and search dogs, most urban search teams will bring along sophisticated search equipment. This can include:

  • Seismic/acoustic detectors: Some search tools like the seismic Life Detector work only if the victims are moving or making noise. This tool will sense vibrations in the building from victims tapping on the building material. The operator uses the amplifier with multiple sensors in various patterns to determine if a victim is nearby. This instrument has the ability to filter out some background noise and, by changing the pattern of the sensors, an experienced operator can narrow the search grid down considerably. Note: This tool, like the call-out search, requires you to make the incident ground as quiet as possible. If there are multiple jobs going on, you will need to cooperate with other crews.
  • Search cameras: Cameras must be in the direct line of sight with the victim. The enormous amount of dust from a building collapse can coat a victim to the point that they are camouflaged, but an experienced search camera operator is trained to see through this. The camera may also be used to recon hazardous areas, or help direct tool movements around a victim.

A Final Word
Searching in an urban disaster environment is one of the most complex scenarios we will ever face. Operating safely and efficiently requires teamwork, supervision and communications up and down the chain of command. Responders must remain flexible and ready to adapt to changing conditions. Training and equipping responders for forcible entry and search techniques, not to mention supplies and shelter to maintain a search and rescue force in the field, is difficult and expensive. Only by staying trained and continuously assessing, updating and practicing our community’s emergency plan will we succeed.

Author’s note: I would like to thank Rory Rehbeck, Search Team Manager for Colorado Task Force 1, for his assistance with this article.