Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What is FEMA’s National US&R response system?
A. This system is a framework for structuring local emergency personnel into integrated disaster response task forces. These task forces, complete with necessary tools and equipment, and specialized training and skills, are deployed by FEMA in times of catastrophic structural collapse.
Q. How many FEMA US&R teams are there?
A. There are 28 teams: one from Arizona; eight from California; one from Colorado; two from Florida; two from Virginia, and one each from Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington State.
Q. How are FEMA US&R teams different from other search and rescue teams?
A. FEMA teams organize existing search and rescue capability into a national program that can quickly deploy to an event. They have additional training, and must be able to deploy within six hours and to sustain themselves for 72 hours. They must also have a roster that fills 31 different positions with at least two people for each position. To receive the FEMA certification, the team must be approved by a US&R oversight board that includes leaders in the field and FEMA officials. One of the difficulties in obtaining the certification is being able to staff a complete roster of at least 62 trained individuals.
Q. What kind of positions make up the 31 in each team?
A. First, all team members are trained and certified emergency medical technicians. Then positions fall into roughly four categories: search and rescue; medical; technical and logistics. The search and rescue positions include engineers with expertise in shoring up, bracing, evaluating, breaching and lifting structural components, rescue specialists, and search specialists who use trained and credentialed search dogs, cameras and listening devices. The medical positions include physicians, EMTs, nurses and others who can set up and staff a mobile field hospital. Technical positions include hazard materials specialists and communications specialists, among others.
Q. What are the first steps the teams take when they arrive at a site?
A. The FEMA US&R team meets with the field incident commander – the local firefighter or emergency specialist who is in charge of the site. After a general situation update and briefing, some team members set up a base of operations at the site, including tents, equipment and a stage areA. Meanwhile, search and rescue specialists and structural engineers inspect the site. They look for major problem areas, likely areas to search, the condition of the collapse and hazardous materials. Also at this time, logistics team members are contacting local vendors to obtain heavy equipment, shoring materials, food, portable toilets and other supplies.
Q. Then what happens?
A. The search and rescue specialists being to gently and carefully move into the structure into areas that are not in imminent danger of collapse to get a better idea of the damage. They will have looked at blueprints of the building to understand its layout and will mark areas that need bracing and areas where victims can be seen. During this preliminary search, if any victim is found alive, the survey halts and stabilization efforts are concentrated there to get the victim out. After this preliminary search, the detailed search begins with dogs, cameras and listening devices. Medical services are given to any victims who are found alive, so they are treated while they are being extricated.
Q. What comes next?
A. Major shoring up is the priority at this point, as additional search is not possible until the site is safe. Shoring up will take place, often, in many different places on the site and searches will be conducted simultaneously. As more and deeper parts of the structure are shored up, the searchers are able to penetrate deeper into the collapsed structure and are not seen from the outside. The search continues as long as it’s possible that victims remain alive.
Q. What makes the task so difficult?
A. Essentially the teams have to “de-layer” the site. Layers of slabs “pancake” on top of each other during a collapse. Within each layer are potential safe areas for victims. But the site has to be dug out from the top to the bottom and from the outside to the inside or the pile will collapse further, threatening rescue workers and potentially killing buried, but alive victims.
Q. Is that why rescuers don’t dig from underneath the structure to reach people?
A. Yes, to do so is impossible without injuring or killing rescuers.
Q. Why do rescuers use “bucket brigades” to remove the debris rather than heavy equipment, such as bulldozers or cranes?
A. Heavy equipment can’t get close enough to the core of the site. The equipment is blocked by twisted steel and slabs, at a minimum. Plus using heavy equipment would destabilize the structure, risking the lives of rescuers and victims buried in the rubble. Only by hand can the pulverized concrete, glass, furniture and other debris be removed. In a large site, such as the World Trade Center, the bucket brigade has to span a long way across potentially unstable parts of the structure to firm ground that can handle large trucks to haul it away. The site itself spans four square city blocks and seven different collapsed buildings.
Q. In the World Trade Center, for example, what amount of debris are we talking about?
A. In the first five days after the collapse of the towers, 30,000 tons of debris had been removed by hand; there are 600,000 tons left.
Q. Do bulldozers or cranes ever help?
A. Yes, when it is determined that the rescue effort is over and that no one remains alive in the structure, large equipment can be moved in to remove debris.
Q. Since water is necessary to keep trapped victims alive until they are rescued, why don’t rescuers shower the site with water in the hopes it will reach them?
A. Water creates significant problems for rescuers, slowing down the rescue process and potentially destabilizing the site because of run-off.
Q. How often are the US&R teams rotated?
A. The teams work 12 hours on and 12 hours off. They may rotate members within the team – remember each position has at least two members – or they may rotate complete teams. Typically, no team stays on site for more than seven days before being rotated out.
Q. Since there are so many teams, why are there only eight at the World Trade Center and four at the Pentagon?
A. It has to do with space limitations at the site. You can only have so many workers “attacking” the structure at one time before it becomes too dangerous. Also, the FEMA US&R teams augment the skilled and determined local rescuers as well, so there are sufficient numbers of rescuers at any time.
Q. What kind of risks do the US&R teams face?
A. Of greatest concern, of course, is being crushed by a structural collapse. Rescuers also get cuts and scrapes, broken bones, respiratory injuries due to hazardous material \ fumes, dust and carbon monoxide, and burns. They are also susceptible to diseases such diphtheria, tetanus and pneumonia.
Q. How are the teams paid?
A. When they are activated by FEMA, they are paid by FEMA. Otherwise, they work their regular jobs.
Q. Who funds their equipment?
A. FEMA funds the equipment. Each team has about $1.7 million worth of equipment, and team member may each carry as much as 60 pounds of equipment and protective clothing on their body.
Q. How long will they stay at a site?
A. Until it is determined that no victims could possibly be alive. In Oklahoma City, the teams stayed for 15 days.
Q. Does FEMA hire members of the US&R team and how can I apply?
A. FEMA does not hire team members; FEMA credentials teams that meet the stringent criteria and are approved by the US&R oversight board. The training is extensive and the commitment required is significant. For more information, go to www.fema.gov/usr/usrtask_info.htm.