Around the country, emergency responders and fire/rescue departments rescue people from disasters large and small. From a single collapsed building to major disasters, these responders locate and extricate survivors and victims while providing on the ground situational awareness to all responding agencies. This helps local resources coordinate with state, federal and tribal authorities to get help as quickly as possible to where it is needed the most.
At the federal level, 28 teams make up FEMA’s National Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Response System(the System).
Highly trained and ready to deploy within four hours, these FEMA-funded US&R task forces have responded to countless disasters since the creation of the System. In addition to search and rescue missions, System resources provide emergency medical care for trapped survivors, perform structural engineering evaluations, stabilize damaged buildings, and identify hazardous materials.
Between disasters, how do these US&R task forces keep their skills sharp?
We recently joined Maryland Task Force One (MD-TF1) at the Virginia Task Force One (VA-TF1) training site for an exercise involving a simulated tornado. The exercise helped ensure MD-TF1 meets FEMA’s readiness requirements while giving the task force the opportunity to test disaster plans, policies, and procedures.
Situated among rolling hills in Fairfax, Virginia is a critically important training site with buildings, simulated collapsed structures, complex training props and debris piles scattered among a secure campus. An invaluable specialized tool for US&R resources, training sites like this are critical to ensuring that when the nation needs them, members of the System can employ the needed training and skills for disasters.
That’s because the site and exercises conducted there ensure System resources have the opportunity to test difficult scenarios in a safe, but realistic learning environment.
The benefits of US&R exercises are immeasurable. Exercises give participants the chance to use equipment they don’t use every day and build skills and team relationships which can be used immediately. Additionally, by implementing pre-established complex scenarios, evaluators can assess the full technical capability of a resource by comparing established practice and prior performance.
It’s not just humans who participate in these exercises. Because the System’s Canine Search Teams (CST) play a critical role in supporting response efforts after disasters, they must test their capabilities too. The CSTs, made up of a canine and their human handler, complete rigorous System certifications specific to the US&R operational environment and must be re-certified every three years. An exercise such as this one allows the canine and their human handler to experience novel situations so they’re ready to find survivors when disaster strikes.