Three years ago, the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department proposed the development of a regional urban search-and-rescue task force to be fully staffed with on-duty personnel capable of responding immediately to incidents involving structural collapse throughout the 12,800 square miles served by the North Central Texas Council of Government.
The original plan was for a Type III USAR task force consisting of a minimum 28 members to provide the region with a valuable response asset. But it soon became apparent that the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country could face a disaster that would quickly overwhelm the team's resources. As the sponsoring agency for the task force, the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department decided to upgrade to a Type I USAR team to enhance emergency response capabilities even further.
To establish a Type I USAR team, however, at least 70 fire and rescue personnel per shift would be required to complete training in the various USAR-related disciplines. The department invited participation from other agencies and jurisdictions within the 16 county region, most notably those in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.
Following months of serious discussion and planning, the concept of a regional USAR task force was presented to the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the Regional Emergency Preparedness Advisory Committee and the Metropolitan Urban Area Security Initiative work group. They approved the idea with enthusiasm, and the development of a Type III team, which eventually would transition to a Type I task force, began in earnest.
The project was a huge undertaking that has cost more than $4 million so far. The City of Dallas submitted grant proposals to the State Homeland Security Grant Program and the Urban Area Security Initiative, two of the largest-sponsored federal grant programs. Both grants were approved. Along with technical-rescue equipment and training funded by two FIRE Grants and major commitments from the city of Dallas and several partner cities' fire departments, the task force had the necessary funding to begin development.
Prior to the development of the Dallas-sponsored task force, Texas had only oneUSAR team, Texas Task Force 1. The Gulf Coast devastation left in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita strongly underscored the need for more than the one USAR team within the state. Everyone would benefit from this well-trained and equipped task force.
The Type III Task Force will become operational this spring, and plans are under way to continue development to a Type I level over the next year. To accomplish this, the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department will enlist the support of numerous departments within the region. The Plano and Richardson fire departments and the 14 agencies of the Northeast Fire Department Association became the first active participants in training exercises and evolutions. Additional agencies have expressed interest in helping to develop the Type I asset. These regional partners are keenly aware of the benefits afforded by multi-jurisdictional response to large-scale incidents, such as the sharing of personnel, training and other associated costs rather than expecting only one city or department to bear the entire financial burden.
The Dallas Regional USAR Task Force will respond to any significant incident or disaster, whether natural or man-made. The team is trained and equipped to locate trapped victims in collapsed structures, trenches and confined spaces in highly populated urban areas. The team also has a hazmat response component.
The FEMA USAR model for a Type III task force was used to establish standards for organizational structure, equipment cache, position descriptions and training requirements. The task force can provide an immediate response with a 28-member component, followed by deployment of various support personnel. The team will be self-sufficient for a 72-hour operational period. Using the FEMA USAR equipment cache list for reference, the Dallas Regional USAR Task Force has an equipment cache consisting of highly technical listening devices, search cameras, hydraulic and manual shoring devices, victim extrication tools, saws, drills, lifting devices, and the full complement of necessary equipment to complete virtually any rescue.
In addition to rescue tools, a sophisticated communications platform has been developed that enables maximum interoperability with other responding agencies. This includes a custom communications support vehicle that responds with the task force, providing radio, satellite, cellular and Internet communication capabilities for the task force and any other agencies responding to the disaster. The communications support units includes radio equipment that covers the frequency ranges used by all responding agencies, as well as those assigned for aviation, ham and state mutual aid use.
An ACU-1000 interconnect system from Raytheon JPS Communications enables the task force communications unit to connect agencies using different frequency ranges, addressing interoperability concerns raised by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. This self-contained unit is also equipped with an auto-acquiring satellite Internet dish system, which allows the task force to download maps and satellite imagery for search teams, use voice-over-IP technology, and maintain contact with state and local emergency management operations centers.
To facilitate an immediate deployment, the majority of technical search-and-rescue equipment is carried on two new USAR heavy-rescue custom vehicles. Not only does this enable rapid response and immediate access to the equipment, but it also allows Dallas Fire-Rescue to use these resources every day for smaller-scale technical-rescue incidents. Additional logistical support equipment, the canine search team, communications equipment cache and all-terrain vehicles are transported to the scene via additional support vehicles and transport trailers.
To ensure the highest level of training for the USAR-related disciplines, this new task force relied on the expertise of the Emergency Services Training Institute at Texas A&M University. All rescue specialists were required to complete the Structural Collapse Technician curriculum at A&M's Disaster City training facility. TEEX and TEXAS Task Force 1 have been instrumental in assisting with the development of this second USAR task force in the state of Texas.
Dallas Fire-Rescue currently is expanding its training facility, adding props specifically designed for USAR-related training to provide the task force and personnel from other participating agencies with a setting that allows for continuing education, USAR operational readiness exercises and technical-rescue drills. To maintain the knowledge and skills acquired through the rigorous training curriculum, monthly USAR training exercises are provided for all task force personnel. Rather than limiting training to one specific USAR discipline, task force members are cross-trained in two or more disciplines to maintain adequate on-duty staffing levels. Cross-training also provides the task force leader with a more flexible team, allowing resources to be dedicated to the discipline with the greatest need based on the type of situation encountered.
The task force has come a long way since the project was first considered in 2004. Although the task force's first commitment is to respond within the immediate 16-county region to man-made or natural disasters, its goal is to evolve into a full Type I task force capable of responding anywhere within the state. The team already has the organizational structure, equipment, supplies, multidisciplinary training, communications and other components in place to accommodate that evolution.
“This spring we will have a USAR task force assembled, expertly trained, properly equipped and ready to go,” says Dallas Fire-Rescue Chief Eddie Burns Sr. “While this is a great achievement for our department, it is only the first step in the development of the world-class response capabilities necessary to meet the challenges arising from acts of terrorism or natural disasters.”
Kenny Shaw is the director for the Dallas Office of Emergency Management.
David Martin is the special operations section chief for the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department.