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How Search and Rescue Works


Urban SAR (USAR)
People contemplate Ground Zero from World Trade Center Path Station, New York City -- site of the largest USAR mission in U.S. History.
People contemplate Ground Zero from World Trade Center Path Station, New York City -- site of the largest USAR mission in U.S. History.
Corey Wise/Getty Images

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established the National Response Plan for disasters in 1991 and sponsors 25 national USAR task forces. In the event of a homeland disaster, FEMA sends the three closest USAR teams within six hours of being notified -- more teams will follow if necessary. The following are considered urban disasters:

USAR teams perform a supporting role to the local and state emergency systems, who act as lead. Each USAR task force is made up of two 31-person teams and four SAR dogs.

The USAR teams are trained in four specialized fields:

  • Search - finding disaster victims
  • Rescue - extracting the victims from the area
  • Technical - ensuring the safety of the rescuers with the help of structural specialists
  • Medical - providing medical assistance to injured victims and rescuers

The most massive USAR mission in U.S. history followed the events of Sept. 11. On that day, terrorists collapsed the Twin Towers in New York City with commercial jet liners, leaving behind injured survivors buried under millions of pounds of rubble. Twenty FEMA USAR teams were dispatched to New York to rescue and recover the survivors. Trained SAR dogs were a key component to the rescue operations at ground zero and made up the largest deployment of rescue dogs in U.S. history with more than 80 on duty. Dogs worked in 12-hour shifts with equal amounts of rest and search time. (You can read more about SAR dogs in How Search-and-Rescue Dogs Work.) Rescue workers also used electronic listening devices and search cameras to help locate survivors.

Many other specialists were deployed for the Sept. 11 SAR effort. Heavy-rigging experts headed up the operation of cranes and bulldozers necessary to move heavy chunks of concrete and steel. Hazardous materials authorities were on hand to ensure the safety of the rescue workers and dogs. With thousands of volunteers on hand, logistics specialists coordinated the rescue effort so everything ran smoothly.

In the next section, we'll look at the equipment used in urban search and rescue.