Ask any experienced urban search-and-rescue responder what the single, most-important issue to any victim trapped in a collapsed structure is, and the answer will be “time.” And therein lies the rub. As effective as these teams are, their size and complexity work against them in no-notice events such as a terrorist attack or an earthquake.
To address this, US&R is changing in California and in nearly every state in the country.
Since 1978 the State of California Office of Emergency Services' Fire & Rescue Branch has been responsible for the “typing” of all manner of firefighting and rescue response resources throughout the state. This process includes a series of documents that have been developed by a working group of subject-matter experts who develop an operational system description. The document delineates the resource types based on staffing level, capabilities and training requirements. Each of these requirements must be met for a resource to be deployable under the mutual-aid system.
Many local fire agencies have units equipped with technical-rescue equipment called by many different names yet with similar capabilities. In a system as resource-rich as California, this can cause complications. When an incident commander initiates a request for a mutual-aid resources, it is important that he fully understands what he is requesting and, equally important, what he is receiving. This is the foundation of the standardized typing system used in California under FIRESCOPE. This process also is used by federal and state firefighting resources, primarily in the wildland arena. For a better understanding of this concept, visit the FIRESCOPE at www.firescope.org and download the ICS-USR-120-1 document.
ICS-USR-120-1 shows the system developed for US&R in California and what OES uses to process requests from departments across the state to have their resources typed and placed into the mutual-aid database.
California recently converted to the national Resource Ordering and Status System. The typing of resources is the key to ordering and deployment in a timely manner and an absolute necessity when a major disaster strikes. For example, during the 2003 fire siege in Southern California, OES coordinated the movement of more than 1,300 local government fire engines through the ROSS predecessor known as MRPS. Each level of typing indicates to the agency making the request what it is requesting and receiving and where each of these resources is coming from so the incident commander understands the time line for arrival of the resource.
The operational-system description for US&R outlines what has become known as the tiered-response system. There are three tiers in the system, and each is designed to ensure a rapid, coordinated response to a disaster.
From the point of impact and collapse, the first tier to be deployed will be the single-typed resource. There are four types of response assets in this tier. Each comes with a specific capability and as such it allows incident commanders to identify areas of need during the disaster and ensure that the proper type resources are being sent to areas where they can be the most effective. The four types in Tier 1 are:
US&R Type-4 Basic Operational Level. This represents the minimum capability to conduct safe and effective search-and-rescue operations at incidents involving non-structural entrapment. Personnel at this level shall be competent at surface rescue that involves minimal removal of debris and building contents to extricate easily accessible victims from damaged, but not collapsed structures.
US&R Type-3 Light Operational Level. This represents the minimum capability to conduct safe and effective search-and-rescue operations at structure-collapse incidents involving the collapse or failure of light-frame construction. This level also is capable of conducting low-angle or one-person load rope rescue.
US&R Type-2 Medium Operational Level. This represents the minimum capability to conduct safe and effective search-and-rescue operations at structure-collapse incidents involving the collapse or failure of heavy-wall construction. This level also is capable of conducting high-angle rope rescue (not including highline systems), confined-space rescue (no permit required), and trench and excavation rescue.
US&R Type-1 Heavy Operational Level: This represents the minimum capability to conduct safe and effective search-and-rescue operations at structure-collapse incidents involving the collapse or failure of heavy-floor, precast-concrete and steel-frame construction. This level also is capable of conducting high-angle rope rescue (including highline systems), confined-space rescue (permit required) and mass-transportation rescue.
As each single-typed resource increases in capability, it must meet each preceding level not only in staffing and training but with equipment as well. In California there are 42 Type-1 heavy resources, 28 Type-2 medium resources, and 22 Type-3 light local government resources.
These single-typed resources offer an initial-attack and immediate-need response capability statewide. All communities are signatory to the statewide master mutual-aid plan. As such, they can release requested resources to the community in need through local agreements within the operational area, region and state through the OES. With local government assets, however, the chief of the agency retains the right to refuse the request with an “Unable to Fill” response. Once this occurs, the OES then will continue to search for a unit until the order is filled.
The most common order for resources comes in the form of a strike team or task force. This order brings a team of five like units with common radio communications and a leader for the strike team and up to five dissimilar units with common radio communications and a leader for a task force. Units are assembled from communities within an operational area, meet at a predesignated place and then deploy to the impact area for assignment. Once at the incident, they function as an integral unit.
As a standalone resource, each type unit can deliver a strong capability, but when these single-typed resources are assembled in the strike team or task force configuration they become an extremely robust asset at any incident scene. When deployed in this configuration, they can remain in the field for more than 14 days and even then can be relieved in place. However, it is important to note that these units don't deploy capable of self-sustainability; they must rely on the incident commander requesting logistical support.
Since the 1950s, the OES has maintained a fleet of fire apparatus that it assigns to local governments throughout the state. Currently, the fleet consists of 114 Type-2 engines and 12 Type-1 water tenders. Of the engines, 75 are outfitted with rescue systems equipment bringing them to a US&R Type-3 level. This diversity of equipment provides OES the opportunity to deploy units to an all-hazard incident. With the current number of 75, OES has the ability to mobilize 15 US&R strike teams into an area of wood and lightweight masonry structures damaged by an attack or earthquake. This capability has potential use in virtually any operational area or in the event of widespread impact, could be distributed in multiple areas of the state. The standardized equipment cache and training ensure that no matter where the OES engine comes from, response will be seamless.
Another strong example of how effective this first tier can be was demonstrated in January 2005 when La Conchita was hit by a severe mudslide that consumed an entire residential neighborhood. Rather than deploy an entire Type-1 heavy US&R task force, the OES opted to deploy three Type-1 heavy companies from the Los Angeles County, Los Angeles City and Long Beach fire departments along with three Type-2 medium companies from Santa Barbara County, Santa Barbara City and La Mirada. These units joined the two Type-1 heavy companies from Ventura County that already were on scene with the initial-attack response. These single-type US&R units operated at this incident for several days.
However effective these initial-attack resources may be, they aren't intended for extended operational periods. Having US&R responders work on a pile for longer than 12 hours jeopardizes personal safety. As each of these units comes to an incident with three to six personnel, rehab is essential.
In California, this is where the second tier of the response system comes into play. After Sept. 11, 2001, the OES and the US&R community recognized that it had nothing between the highest level of single-typed resource and a Type-1 heavy task force. The response time difference between these two tiers was too great and worked against the responders and the trapped victims.
In 2002 and 2003 the US&R OSD was revised further; the 29-member regional task force was developed based on a concept that the Marin County Fire Department had developed and made operational. The system is a robust heavy-rescue capability that would be light, fast and mobile. It would be capable of being totally self-sustainable for the first 24-hours and capable of a 12-hour operational period. These regional task forces bring much-needed medical, heavy-rigging and technical-search capability to the scene. This rapid-deployment resource will arrive in sufficient time to provide relief to the initial-attack single-typed resources, fill the extended-attack function for the first 24 hours, and ensure continuity of operation until the Type-1 heavy task force can arrive and engage in rescue efforts or planned need.
There are eight regional task forces throughout the state. Other agencies have expressed an interest but have yet to make any formal inquires. Should these agencies follow through and make the formal request, there could be as many as 15 regional task forces throughout the state.
Now, more than ever, the future of US&R in California is strong and growing stronger every day. Although robust capability exists at all three tier levels, there is still a great need to further develop and enhance this vital response capability. There still are gaps in US&R resources in many key population centers of the state and in proximity to critical infrastructure in virtually each response region, particularly in the vital economic and cultural Bay Area. So what is being done to address this gap?
The San Francisco Fire Department currently is working to develop a regional task force and to bring several of its single-typed resources into the system. In the nation's 10th-largest metropolitan area, the San Jose Fire Department has US&R units that will be typed; so do Santa Clara County and City fire departments. Key population centers in the San Joaquin Valley — Modesto and Stockton — aggressively are staffing and equipping US&R resources in all three single-type categories, as well as beginning to develop a regional task force between their two agencies. OES Fire & Rescue also is moving to build capability in areas otherwise void of US&R resources.
In April 2006, the California Seismic Safety Commission reconvened the US&R Readiness Advisory Committee to update the commission's 2003 report. This report calls for a total project funding of $283.8 million to build and enhance California's US&R, hazmat, and swiftwater/flood-rescue capabilities. This report can be found at www.seismic.ca.gov.
In July 2006, the California Office of Homeland Security, led by Director Matt Bettenhausen, began a partnership with OES to provide capability in these areas. OHS has provided $12.4 million for the construction of 19 Type-2 medium trailer units, one Type-3 light trailer unit and two Type-2 medium mobile training trailers to be distributed in areas of the state that don't have US&R capabilities. Further, OES has submitted a $19 million budget change proposal to purchase 18 Type-1 heavy single-typed US&R units.
With the three tiered response system of initial attack, extended attack and planned need, California can deliver one of the most comprehensive US&R systems in the nation; however, even with this capability, it will be challenged by the forces of Mother Nature. However, when the ground begins to shake, the response will be impressive and nothing less.
So how do responders and emergency managers close fight Father Time? A tiered-response system that bridges the gap between first-response and US&R heavy task force resources may be the answer.
Charley Hurley is the deputy chief of special operations for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, where he is responsible for overall management of the state urban search-and-rescue response program.