The “Search” in Urban Search and Rescue

Lt. Michael Daley focuses on a USAR team's search specialist and how team canines and specialized tools are combined to complete their tasks.

When rescuers arrive at a disaster site, the view can be overwhelming: a rubble pile that consists of large objects, twisted metal, broken concrete, remnants of contents of the structure, not to mention jagged edges and ridges that pose additional hazards for crews that will traverse the pile. This mountain of debris can stretch for acres upon acres, symbolizing what once was an orderly (somewhat) mixture of design, aesthetics and gravity resistance. The task before the crews can seem vast, but to quote the philosopher Lao Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So, where does the rescuer make that “step”? The answer comes from the search component.


The National Urban Search and Rescue Response System set forth the guidelines for all component members, including the search component. These team members include Technical Search Specialists and Canine Search Specialists. In general, all members must possess technical rescue skills based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1670, Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 29 CFR 1910.146, which pertains to confined spaces.

There are further training requirements, including:

• Completion of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Response System Technical Search Specialist course

• Completion of the DHS/FEMA National USAR Response System Canine Search Specialist course

• Completion of a USAR global positioning system (GPS) awareness and operations course

Both Technical Search Specialists and Canine Search Specialists assist in the rescue effort on many levels. They provide support by:

• Searching structures and other areas as required within the mission

• Documenting and marking locations of victims and hazards

• Land navigation and site mapping

• Operating and maintaining all necessary search equipment

• Understanding and interpreting canine behavior during search operations

• Care and welfare of the canine during the mission

The Canine – A Compassionate Search Tool

There are many attributes the search and rescue canine must have: confidence, bravery, self-assurance, dexterity, nerve, strength and stamina for long-duration operations, just to name a few. These traits are born into the animal, but they are enhanced by the handler during the training of the canine unit.

One of the most important qualities that the canine’s human counterpart needs is time. The canine search development that makes up the unit (both handler and canine) is not a hobby or just something you do on weekends, so to speak; this is a lifestyle. Even on the “off days,” the canines and handlers spend countless hours of training on new, unfamiliar rubble piles. These include abandoned buildings, burned-out structures, junkyards, collapses and the like. Furthermore, the canine unit spends a lot of this training time with other units for interoperability with other canines. Additionally, friends and family members serve as “victims” and help with the tutoring and preparation for the Type I and II certification tests.

A Type II Certification for a canine is considered a basic foundation for abilities of the canine unit. This exam includes levels of obedience, recall and recognition, a five-minute down stay while the handler is out of sight and an agility test. The agility test encompasses many of the hazards that could be encountered on the pile: elevated platforms, traversing unsteady surfaces, a tunnel to crawl through that includes at least one right angle and direction and control testing. The unit then operates on the pile and the canine must find the victim without seeing the handler. A canine getting a “hit” (scent) gives at least three barks and the handler identifies the site as an area for further search.

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