What’s the largest team you’ve ever been a part of? Maybe it’s a sports team, a project team at work, or a group you volunteer with. Whatever your answer, I’m fairly confident that it’s not as complex, as geographically spread out, or as diverse as the local, state, and federal search and rescue units that collectively make up a single National Urban Search and Rescue Response System task force.
The nation’s search and rescue capabilities are in a very different place than they were 10 or 15 years ago. Over the years, disasters across the U.S. have defined and refined the best way to set up the people and equipment that make up this national urban search and rescue team.
Here’s a look at some of the events that demonstrate how the country’s search and rescue teams support each other and work together towards the goal of saving lives.
2005: Hurricane Katrina
The scale of the search and rescue operations after Hurricane Katrina made the search and rescue mission a unique challenge. Hurricane Katrina put the entire emergency management team to the test, including the dedicated men and women at the local, state, and federal levels responsible for saving lives after the storm. All 28 of our system’s search and rescue teams deployed to either Louisiana or Mississippi, and some even went out a second time. The teams searched thousands of structures, rescued hundreds of people, and operated across a dauntingly massive area.
Hurricane Katrina ultimately led to a more cohesive way for search and rescue capabilities to be coordinated across the federal government. The Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act authorized the Department of Defense, U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Interior, and FEMA to share their search and rescue expertise, which played itself out in Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and Ike in 2008.
2008: Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and Ike
The 2008 hurricane season showcased how to effectively coordinate search and rescue assets across thousands of miles. From September 1 through 13, three hurricanes made landfall in the U.S. mainland: Gustav in Louisiana, Hanna in South Carolina, and Ike in Texas. With over 1,000 miles between them, search and rescue teams were in place as far south as Galveston, Texas to as far north as Richmond, Virginia. The 2008 hurricane season showed that federal search and rescue assets could be coordinated across an even larger area than what was needed in 2005 – validating the reforms made by the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act.
2012: Hurricane Sandy
The search and rescue mission after Hurricane Sandy was an amazing accomplishment in-and-of itself. Teams from multiple states worked across a large area, searched thousands of structures, and saved lives. What distinguishes the search and rescue response for Hurricane Sandy was what happened after the teams had accomplished their traditional mission.
For the first time, search and rescue teams carried out a humanitarian mission to meet people’s needs in the impacted areas. Members delivered medicine, blankets, food, water, and went door-to-door to check on people who did not have power or heat. This meant teams routinely carried packs full of supplies up the stairs of high-rise apartment buildings to deliver whatever was needed. While this was a different kind of mission for federal search and rescue teams, it showed their willingness to do whatever was needed to help people impacted by disasters.
2013: Moore, Oklahoma Tornado
While the photos of damage after a hurricane and tornado may look similar, the two events are totally different in the eyes of search and rescue teams. When a hurricane makes its way towards the coastline, it can allow for several days to plan for what may happen. Tornadoes don’t give you that luxury– they hit with only minutes of advance notice.
As soon as we received reports that Moore, Oklahoma, had been struck by a tornado, we sent several federal search and rescue teams to areas near Moore, anticipating a request for their support. When the state of Oklahoma asked for federal help with search and rescue operations, our teams were able to contribute their equipment and expertise within hours to supplement the state and local teams already working to save lives.
2013: Colorado Floods
Later in 2013, flash flooding in Colorado validated many of the investments the country had made into its search and rescue capabilities. The Colorado Task Force One team (pictured below) responded to the floods and performed hundreds of rescues using equipment, training, and capabilities they had readily available as one of our 28 federal search and rescue task forces. In addition to using the resources they had on-hand, federal teams from other states were able to support their efforts as needed. The way the Colorado team was able to seamlessly leverage their specialized training and equipment showed that the investments made in the System over the last decade were still paying dividends for local communities.
2001: September 11 Attacks
These search and rescue successes bring us back to the days and weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001. After search and rescue teams had successfully responded in both New York, Washington, D.C., expanding of the nation’s search and rescue capabilities was a priority for Congress and FEMA. This resulted in an increased emphasis on coordination, training, resource sharing, and building a structure so cities across America could benefit from a strong national search and rescue capability.
The teams’ tireless efforts after 9/11 made it clear that the nation’s search and rescue capability could be built up so every level of government – from local, state, to federal – could support one another to save lives after catastrophic events. That’s the beauty of the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System – it’s a collection of local, state, and federal expertise and resources set up as one cohesive team who work together to save lives.