Starting A USAR Team Isn’t As Easy As You May Think

Water rescue
Water rescue operations fall into the USAR realm. While equipment requirements are far less than heavy rigging or structural collapse incidents, training requirements are very high. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team
USAR frequently supports heavy rigging operations, and the equipment requirements can be as challenging as the training aspect.
Specialized water rescue tools and equipment
Specialized water rescue tools and equipment can, at times, stress the budget, warehousing space and transportation plans. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
Urban Search and Rescue (USAR)
USAR operations can merge numerous activities such as water rescue, structural collapse and a wide area search. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
Urban Search and Rescue (USAR)
The USAR Base of Operations in Gulfport, Miss., following hurricane Katrina is an example of the kind of massive undertakings rescuers must launch.

Starting an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team isn’t as easy as buying a pile of tools and then some kind of vehicle to carry them. That may be how some departments elect to do it, but that’s not the right way. There are many considerations and factors that weigh in on your program development. Initial training, continuing education and staffing are also part of the equation. There are also significant logistical issues to consider before launching down the road in the development of a team.

To start, let’s look at some of these basic factors in developing a USAR team.

USAR teams got started as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco area on Oct. 17, 1989. Following that disaster, many states, as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), recognized that as a nation, we really did not have the true capability to respond to and deal with the special rescue needs created by these incidents. That recognition prompted FEMA to establish the USAR program and Congress to provide matching funds to agencies throughout the country to develop teams and USAR, as we know it today was born. If given the chance to do it all over again, I would do many things differently and many things the same.

Teams Are Expensive

Make no mistake; developing a USAR team is expensive. Many, if not all, agencies throughout the country have limited equipment budgets. For some, these budgets are stretched already to cover the day-to-day equipment needs of the agency.

Fortunately, many agencies can take advantage of Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grants, regional grants, technology transfer programs, Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Programs (CEDAP), Homeland Security grants and a host of other related funding streams that have begun to kick start USAR programs.

Prior to these funding sources, the development of a USAR program was out of the reach of most organizations, quite frankly. On September 11, 2001, however, America had its eyes opened to the potential threat responders face every day.

A Reality Check

It’s true there were incidents before the Sept. 11 attacks, like the Oklahoma City Murrah building bombing and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York, but the 2001 attacks gave the public, and elected officials, a reality check not only to the threat potential to America, but to the nation’s first responders’ ability to respond to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) events.

Grant programs were designed to bolster first responders’ ability to respond and to minimize the impact on life, property and commerce in the aftermath of unthinkable events.

Obviously everybody wants to prevent such attacks when possible, eliminating the loss of life and property damage, but if we can’t we want to get things back close to a normal routine as soon as possible. That’s were the USAR programs come into play.

Before going too much further, I must issue a word of caution. If a department is getting into the USAR business just to get into that business, it’s likely barking up the wrong tree. It’s far better to focus on enhancing response capabilities at the local level, never loosing sight of the fact the department exists to serve that local community.

That said, local funding to start a USAR team might be, at best nearly impossible to secure. Departments needing seed money to get started should look at the Responder Knowledge Base (RKB) website, found at, for information about various grant programs.

The RKB has links to numerous federal funding sources, which may provide money to enhance or help establish teams to respond to terrorism/WMD type incidents.

No Grants For Upkeep

Keep in mind, as a general rule grants do not support the maintenance, upkeep and repair of equipment you purchase, so plan accordingly.

Assuming the department has, or can get a sufficient funding source, and has acquired the administrative and political approvals, the next item to look at is acquisition or procurement of equipment.

The key to figuring out what to buy is figuring out what’s needed. To do that, perform a risk assessment of the community and determine the biggest hazards while figuring what are the most likely scenarios to strike. Next, figure out what is missing to cope with that response.

Settling On Type Of Team

After doing some work in that area, departments should settle on what type of teams they’re looking to develop. Developing a USAR team that mirrors the requirement of a FEMA Type I task force can be a daunting task. Keep in mind that smaller in size does not necessarily mean less capable.

Consider a FEMA Type III Task Force that is half the size of a Type I and half the headaches. A Type III Task Force is ideal for local or regional applications. For some departments, like those looking to enhance existing technical, heavy lifting, breaching and breaking capabilities, developing a Type I heavy rescue company might be in order.

I have long been an advocate of splitting the size of the FEMA Type I Task Force in half. You get the same capability, but you reduce the size of the equipment cache and personnel requirements significantly.

The current footprint of a FEMA Type I Task Force is huge. It takes a huge amount of work to keep it fully maintained, and it takes a huge amount of transportation assets (vehicles) to move it.

And huge is the operative word here. USAR teams are expected to be mobile, agile and quick responding, not the kind of terms most people think about when faced with the challenge of moving 80,000 pounds of equipment.

Personnel Requirement

And that’s just the equipment. In addition to all that stuff, a full Type I Task Force includes 70 personnel. That is a significant number of people to take on a road trip anywhere. And that does not include support personnel such as drivers and operators.

The trade off with a size reduction from a Type I to a Type III task force is around the clock, 24-hours-a-day operations.

The FEMA format Task Force was intended to put half of the team in the field with the other half off duty, rehabilitating or resting at the base for the next shift. For a local or regional task force, this can be accomplished by using a planned shift or platoon change.

When purchasing equipment, a key point to remember is avoid recreating the wheel. Talk to people who have already been through the build-up process and learn what they bought and why.

Vendor contacts, warehousing questions and equipment cache lists are all issues that have been hashed out previously. To find other USAR teams, FEMA maintains a list on its Web site, Many USAR teams have their own Web sites and ways to contact them directly. Consider contacting local folks who are going through or have recently gone through this process. Another place to contact is the State Urban Search and Rescue Web site at

USAR Cache Management

Finding the funding and purchasing the equipment is just the beginning of developing a USAR task force. Then there’s the logistics of receiving, warehousing, storage, maintenance, transportation, documentation, tracking, distribution and, eventually disposal, of the USAR cache.

Let’s start with storage. You have to have some place to put all this stuff, and you should be thinking about this while making the purchasing decisions.

Questions to be considered include whether the cache will be stored for deployment into an event or emergency incident, or will a single component of the total cache be used on an as needed or “special call” basis.

Departments should consider if a large amount of the equipment cache will be deployed or positioned with companies or units in the field as a matter of routine and then in the event of a disaster or emergency incident be recalled to a central point for collection to respond.

Then, there’s always the question of who will maintain the equipment and the overall plan for the deployment and use of the equipment.

Departments must have a clear understanding of exactly what the equipment is expected to do, who will have access to it and who will be accountable.

Decisions should be made about whether the cache is expected to enhance the community’s local response, enhance the technical capabilities of local or regional agencies,  respond to larger events within a region, or be pre-staged ahead of and during special events.

Don’t expect that what you want to do with the equipment is the same as everyone else’s expectations. The agency chief has a stake in the decision making, as do the elected officials who have a financial commitment to the program. They obviously believe they have significant say in the expectations of the program.

Another logistical decision to be made is how to move all that equipment. Some of the options, depending on how much equipment is involved include vans, trailers, gooseneck trailers pulled by one-ton trucks, to full-blown custom USAR apparatus.

Some considerations to keep in mind during the decision phase of transporting equipment include the budget, where will it be parked, what it is expected to do, who will drive it, how will it be maintained, how will equipment be stored on or in it, and what are the accessibility requirements for the equipment.

And these are just conversation starters. It doesn’t matter how much equipment you have. If you can’t get it there, it doesn’t matter how much stuff you have.

The primary question to answer is what’s expected to be done with the equipment. There are many options out there, and all have advantages and disadvantages.

The transportation equipment needs will become clearer as the department considers whether the entire equipment cache is to be deployed to an emergency incident, unloaded, organized and then selected by rescue teams outfitted to deal with a specific incident. Another method is to have the teams work directly out of the vehicle. These considerations will affect the transportation needs.

Transportation Regulations

It’s important to remember there are regulations pertaining to the transportation of dangerous goods. The U.S. Department of Transportation regulation Title 49 CFR Parts 100-185 specifically regulate the transportation of dangerous goods (hazardous materials) on rail, highway and by air.  This rule will also affect how a department’s equipment is packaged, the type of vehicle used to transport it and its intended use.

Moving on to other issues, maintenance of a stand-alone USAR cache can be challenge, even for the largest agency. Not only is maintenance time consuming and staffing intensive, but it is expensive.

Required Maintenance

For example, gas-monitoring equipment requires routine and specific maintenance procedures. Calibration gas and sensors have finite shelf lives. Items like this cannot sit on the shelf and be expected to perform if not regularly and routinely tested and maintained.

Think about who is going to calibrate the monitors. The choices are agency personnel or an outside vendor. A vendor can relieve the host agency of having trained and qualified staff to calibrate and maintain the equipment, but someone still has to pull the equipment from the cache and send it out for service.

There’s other equipment needing routine attention including gasoline-powered equipment that needs exercising; tents and shelters need periodic inspection; batteries need recharging; electronic equipment needs testing; radios need to be checked out and tested; and hazmat equipment must be tested and inspected.

Again, this is the short list. As we already know, maintenance is one of the most important things any department can do. In the fire station, equipment on apparatus gets inspected at least once a day at platoon change, at least in a full-time department. In most cases, it gets tested and inspected several times as each assigned member checks the entire inventory of the apparatus.

In a stand-alone cache, this may be accomplished with “cache parties,” or maintenance details. Coordinating the staffing resources to perform maintenance can be a test of patience in itself.

Beyond the purchasing, transportation and maintenance, there’s the issue of documentation and tracking. It’s important to know who has the equipment and where it is. With consumables, you should know how many of each item is left. With large USAR caches, moving the equipment from site to site, or from person to person, accountability can become a problem. A tracking system is critical for recovery of equipment when an incident draws to a conclusion and demobilizes.

Tracking cards, bar code systems, computer databases and note pads all work with some limitations. The most effective system must have some type of computer database to generate inventory lists, inspection records and a host of any other affiliated documents.

Keep in mind, equipment and tools purchased with federal grant money must have specific information documented for the life of the tool, “cradle to grave.” Some of these information database blocks should include: manufacturer; model; serial number; vendor; purchase price; storage location or assignment; annual inventory and final disposition.

The intent of this article is to set the stage for future editions, which will further address each of the issues in detail.  It is not intended, nor has it addressed each and every issue in developing a local or regional USAR team. In many cases, each and every agency will have a different answer as most issues are agency or department specific.

The development of a USAR team is demanding, but it is rewarding. The training itself goes a long way to enhancing the response capability of a department.

Add new technology and equipment to the mix and you greatly enhance the ability of the local agency to save lives and property.

If memory serves, that’s what it’s all about.

Editor’s Note: Mark Saxelby is a battalion chief with the Los Angeles City Fire Department. He has been a logistics manager for his department’s FEMA USAR Team since its inception in 1990.  As a captain, he opened the department’s first full-time staffed USAR company and held that position until promotion. He routinely teaches disaster logistics throughout the country and has conducted numerous command, logistics and rescue training classes.

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