Collapse, Crash, or Crime: Who's Missing?

Time is short. Search and rescue within the first minutes demands fast analysis, answers, and action.

AT 10:18 a.m., the rumble and roar of a Tuesday morning earthquake has just collapsed a 10-story downtown building housing offices for more than 600 people. You jump when the silence is shattered by the dispatcher toning out a report of a missing 4-year-old child, last seen playing in her backyard. An ELT signal is picked up from an aircraft last tracked on radar 25 miles out from the airport over mountainous terrain.

These are examples of the need to trigger search and rescue activities. Statistics show that the longer it takes to initiate a response, the "colder" the track becomes for making a successful rescue. Such scenes will evoke a multi-agency response, for which your department will be arriving first. What actions must first be taken? What options are available? Who and which agencies must be contacted? What will they need when they arrive? These are but a few questions that need quick and thorough answers.

When a search and rescue (SAR) call is placed, it will be for people, crafts (air or water), or in response to a disaster. Any of these can occur in areas defined as urban, rural, or wilderness. Then there are the specialties to train for: cliff/cave, man-tracking, air-scent or trailing dogs, water, body/evidence search, electronic (ELT/EPIRB), or remote area medical/evacuation.

Each one of these events requires different skills and modes of response, so it is imperative to identify the initial information as accurately and as quickly as possible. This ensures the right calls are made and the correct initial actions are taken.

For example, a missing-child call most likely will be taken first by a police officer. The officer must assess the situation and either perform or oversee critical tasks to collect the necessary information for a proper search to be done. A reported downed aircraft will first involve the rescue squad or, in some states, the state police, and contact with the Civil Air Patrol and others (if non-military). A collapsed building in an urban environment probably will go to the fire department first. But make no mistake that all of these events will soon involve multi-agency response, so the establishment of the incident command structure and activating the emergency response plan are necessary.

There are specialty-trained search and rescue teams available throughout the United States. In the event of a general search and rescue emergency or an urban disaster, first responders should contact their state's emergency management department; it can help coordinate much of the call-ins required for assistance.

Urban Disaster Responses
Certainly one of the most devastating events that can happen to a first responder is an urban disaster.

Until such resources can mobilize and arrive, what do you, as the first responder, do? Search and rescue in an urban disaster is one of the most dangerous types of emergency response activities to perform. It can expose local first responders to many hazards for which they have little training and virtually no previous experience. These hazards include hazardous materials; cave-ins; damaged infrastructures; falling material; fire/explosion; confined spaces; site security and crowd safety (including media); electrical, gas, and water utilities; and numerous others.

An Incident Command Structure (ICS) must be established and preparation must be made for a multi-casualty incident with the responding rescue/medical units. Very much like a hazardous materials incident, potential exposures to known and unknown hazards are great. We are finally realizing in hazmat calls that performing a rescue or recovery without appropriate training, skills, or equipment is dangerous and not recommended. And although the same principles should apply in an urban disaster with people who are missing or unaccounted for, we do not yet follow the same guidelines.

In such an event, volunteers with little or no training come from everywhere. Though well-intentioned, they place themselves and other responders at risk. Some of the first actions a first responder must take at such an event are scene security and scene safety measures. Communications are vital to ensure a prompt response of qualified responders, including local law enforcement to control the security of the scene. Use barrier tape, establish your triage positions according to your multi-casualty (MCI) plan, and take care of the outside perimeter first with walking wounded and those patients immediately accessible. Do not attempt moving debris or material without proper equipment, shoring devices, lifting devices, and trained responders.

In such a response, rescue equipment of all types and sizes will be necessary. It is critical to ensure that response personnel use only equipment they are trained to use and then only within the capacity and design of the equipment. This is not the place to exceed equipment functions; that only places those in the immediate area, as well as the equipment itself, in danger.

Staging areas for equipment must be established. Cluttering an area with tools and equipment only presents additional hazards for the responders.

Personal protective equipment also will be required, such as hearing protection, steel-toe and metatarsal boots, hard hats, gloves, and respirators. Fall protection may be required for heights, but first consider whether the harness and/or lanyards have a safe place for being secured and will not create a trapping hazard for the responder who is wearing them.

FEMA National Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Training and Guidelines

Specialty courses are available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Search and Rescue Teams. For information about them, visit They include:

  • Structural Collapse Technician Course
  • Medical Specialist Training
  • Logistics Specialist Training

In addition, there are support materials available, such as the Incident Support Team Operations Manual, safety information, contact information, training videos, and information on US&R teams. The Web site provides more details on the teams and their function, capabilities, and support.

Going In Too Fast
An urban disaster presents all of the challenges associated with hazardous materials and multi-casualty incidents, in addition to engineering and other safety concerns. With time being of the essence, do not get so tunnel-visioned that you become the dead hero. That neither saves victims' lives nor helps fellow responders in completing the job at hand. At the risk of sounding cold and harsh, it is better to wait for the right personnel and equipment than to engage in a rapid attempt at a rescue that kills those who are attempting to save lives.

A first responder must focus on establishing communications with trained teams that can respond, securing the site to protect other responders and the public, establishing triage and staging areas, and other MCI activities. Any further action can risk everyone's life! Call on and wait for the help, then work with all diligence in a safe, planned, and calculated manner.

This article originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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