Composition of an Urban Search and Rescue Task Force

When the two Urban Search and Rescue Task forces from Los Angeles County Fire Department and Fairfax County, Virginia were dispatched to aid the victims of the Haiti earthquake, I did not know much about how they were organized. But after some research, mostly at the FEMA web site, I found out more about them.

Currently, there are 28 task forces across the country. They are sponsored by FEMA and are staffed and equipped to respond to any type of emergency incident where search and rescue is required. Each task force is equipped with the necessary tools and equipment and is supposed to be able to begin traveling within 6 hours.

The locations of the 25 Urban Search & Rescue Task Forces that existed in 1996.
The locations of the 25 Urban Search & Rescue Task Forces that existed in 1996.

FEMA’s standard operating procedure calls for them to send the three closest task forces, and more if necessary. As far we we can tell, they did not follow this procedure for the Haiti earthquake, sending only two task forces, as of January 14 anyway, that were not the closest.

(UPDATE @ 7:38 p.m. Jan. 14; we found out that the Miami Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, South Florida Task Force 2, departed just after noon today, headed toward Haiti.)

Each task force has two 31-person teams, four canines, and a comprehensive equipment cache. The idea is that the 31-person teams would rotate, each working for about 12 hours a day. They are supposed to be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours, and should be able to stay on the incident for 10 days.

FEMA claims that the Task forces operate within the Incident Command System, but they also say that the personnel on the teams work in one of six areas:

1. Management

Composition:          Task Force Leader, Safety Officer, Planning, Search Manager, Rescue Manager, Logistics, Medical Manager

Functions:                 Provides overall management and coordination of task force operations.

2. Search

Composition:            Canine Specialists, Search Canines, Technical Search Specialists

Functions:                  Utilizes canines and technical/electronic search to locate trapped victims.

3. Rescue

Composition:            Rescue Specialists organized into four squads with leader and five specialists, and includes Heavy Rigging Specialists.

Functions:                 Performs extrication of trapped victims. Skilled in cutting, shoring, lifting, and breaching steel and reinforced concrete.

4. Medical

Composition:            Physicians and Medical Specialists at the paramedic or equivalent level.

Functions:                 Provides pre-hospital and emergency care for task force members and crush syndrome/confined space medicine for rescued victims.

5. Planning

Composition:            Structural Engineers, Hazardous Materials Specialists, Technical Information Specialists.

Functions:                 Provides support to the overall search and rescue mission to include: planning, hazards evaluation, structural integrity assessments, and technical documentation.

6. Logistics

Composition:            Logisticians, Communications Specialists, and Support Specialists.

Functions:                 Provides support to the overall search and rescue mission to include: logistical, communications, mobilization and demobilization, and transportation.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “Composition of an Urban Search and Rescue Task Force”

  1. In regard to passports and shots.
    As a member of CA Task Force 3 we were told to hurry up and get the required shots and make sure we had a current passport in case we went out the door for the Haiti deployment.
    I am sure that the feds are looking at changing the structure of out of country deployments for the 26 teams that are not cleared for international deployment.

  2. I’m not very familiar with the actual procedure, but for out of Country disaster assistance, there are only a few of the 28 USAR Task Forces that are utilized.
    Under the USAID’s OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance) I recall that Fairfax County VATF1, Miami FLTF1 and one of the California Task Forces are certified as OFDA deployable. If you check out they have a little more background on the history and evolution of the OFDA USAR Teams.

    1. I read somewhere that only two FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces were certified to operate outside the country. But since at least 10 Task Forces are responding to Haiti, it appears that the State Department and FEMA have relaxed their standards in order to get more rescuers on the ground. I wonder if everyone on all 10 task forces has passports and the required shots? There is may be no one at Haiti that is available to check passports, and considering the dire situation there, it’s more important to let the task forces into the country, than to worry about paperwork.



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