TECHNICAL RESCUE: The "MUSCLE" Of Urban Search and Rescue

"Rescue.” The word is one of the most widely used in the emergency services, as it has a broad variety of applications.

The term refers to a response by emergency personnel to an ever-changing dynamic event that involves saving a life during an imminent dangerous situation using prompt, vigorous procedures in multiple competencies such as extrications, fires, collapses, battlegrounds, mines, collapsed trenches and mass-casualty incidents (Photo 1).

These types of operations warrant responders who possess a higher degree of training in multiple competencies. Due to the increase in complexity and procedures for extracting a victim from entrapment, rescuers need a multi-discipline approach for tackling emergencies, including medical care, structural shoring and support, rope systems, patient packaging and spreading and cutting. A significant amount of responsibility for delivering these skills is bestowed on the rescue specialist – the “muscle” of urban search and rescue (USAR) operations. These responsibilities include:

• Implementing skills and operating equipment for handling the rescue portion of the Incident Action Plan (IAP)

• Determining the appropriate tactics for the situation faced upon arrival, which can include the need for rope rescue, confined space rescue, building shoring and stabilization, breaking and breaching, trench wall shoring, heavy lifting and rigging, victim packaging and extrication (Photo 2)

• Routine field maintenance and repairs of tools and equipment

• Basic understanding and comprehension for search strategy, use and capabilities of resources and electronic devices and equipment

In his book Fire Department Special Operations, Chief John Norman discusses the “special” in special operations units in the emergency services. His points drive home the importance of using the right personnel for this level of operations. Special operations staff are truly “special,” so to speak; these members get training in skills and abilities over and above what the base-level responder would receive. This training comes in the form of an agreement; there is a significant commitment on the part of responders to work continuously to hone these skills when they initially receive the training and to continue training and increasing their skill level as technology and operations are changed and adjusted.

Skill evaluation

When positions are open in the component, potential members for the position of USAR rescue specialist are required to demonstrate their respective proficiency during an open skill evaluation session. While the levels of training that these candidates possess may vary, one common thread is certain – attending the evaluation process is a humbling experience. Candidates from all over converge on the training grounds to show their skills. While there are obviously successful candidates that enter the world of urban search and rescue, for many others it is an eye-opening experience.

The evaluation consists of hundreds of points demonstrating a candidate’s knowledge, skills and abilities in various arenas of rescue, including rope rescue, confined-space rescue, trench rescue, shoring, collapse, tool use and extrication (Photo 3). Many times, candidates arrive with a pre-conceived notion that their skills are sufficient to make the grade; frequently, however, the outcome is less than stellar, and many of them are forced to re-evaluate their capabilities in the aggressive, competitive world of rescue.

The evaluation begins with a simple dexterity course; candidates are required to carry a weighted box across a limited area to demonstrate balance and coordination. Afterwards, various stations test the candidate’s proficiencies. At the rope and rigging station, candidates will be tested on their skills of knot-tying, single-point and multi-point anchor systems, simple, compound and complex mechanical advantage systems and patient packaging.

Moving to the lifting and moving station, candidates are asked to demonstrate various types of levers, the use of high-pressure airbags, cribbing and operational safety when moving heavy objects. At the tool station, candidates must show basic knowledge of various types of pneumatic-, electric-, hydraulic- and engine-powered breaching and breaking tools. These skills include field maintenance of the tools, starting and safe operations of the tools, various types of cuts and breaches and tool/blade replacement.

Moving forward to the shoring station, students are quizzed on construction and deploying specific types of shores, ranging from Class 1 shoring (Spot Shore) to Class 3 shoring (Laced Post Shore). Supporting information, such as nail patterns, wedge sizing, raker angles and shoring strategies is required knowledge for the candidate as well.

Making the grade

While successfully completing the proficiency evaluation may feel like the end of an arduous journey, in reality the trip is just beginning. Once accepted as a member of the rescue component, the “rookie” must attend a large variety of training exercises in order to bring the new member up to the performance level of the entire component. The USAR team will be sent to some of the most grueling and challenging scenes that a rescuer can possibly encounter, so everyone must be on top of their game when the team is deployed. Courses that are designed to increase the skills of the member in multiple competencies are delivered to all personnel. Advancing one’s skills in rope rescue, vehicle extrication, trench rescue and shoring will aid in preparing the component for the “worst-case scenario.”

The variety and level of difficulty that can be set in the training session is limited only by the imagination and resources available to the USAR rescue component. Many types of challenging scenarios and exercises have been presented to squads and rescue teams, thanks to the capabilities and logistics of some of the best in the business. For example, our New Jersey Task Force 1 shoring instructors who train the rescue component have constructed a state-of-the-art scenario area, complete with various types of adjustable, stand-alone props and configurations in a controlled area. Props such as broken window and door frames, racked walls and ceilings, sloped floors and compromised structural columns let rescue squads practice collapse shoring techniques in a safe environment and can be modified based on the objectives of the training session (Photo 4). Best of all, at the end of the day, all of the props can be reset and readied for the next training session so all squad personnel can benefit from the same types of challenges in each scenario.

Furthermore, many scenarios that seem fundamental can become out of the ordinary just by changing the location of the drill. For example, our rescue component members were recently trained in tower and crane rescue at a local training facility for operating engineers. While many rescue specialists are proficient in rope rescue, taking those skills and applying them to areas with limited access, structural density and packaging capabilities can make simple tasks very difficult to complete. Training component members to complete ordinary tasks in extraordinary environments will go a long way in maximizing the level of readiness that the rescue specialist will have as they respond to their next deployment.


When one discusses rescue specialists, special operations units or rescue companies in general, I believe Chief Norman explains it best in his book, Fire Department Special Operations: “Special operations units are just that, special. They are tasked with the most challenging and dangerous assignments. There is no room for cronyism, nepotism or political interests.”

These are the best of the best, the ones who get the call for the response that is beyond the “bread-and-butter” incident that most department members are trained to handle. Moreover, while training and development of technical rescue skills and competencies are critical for success in these operations, the most crucial attribute that these people possess comes from within.

Quite simply, rescue is not an assignment; it is more of a mind-set. It is the “never-give-up” mannerism that carries rescue specialists through the discharge of their mission. The ability to overcome a challenge and improvise and adapt to get the job done is not always a skill that can be passed down in a classroom or exercise field; it is a trait that makes these professionals truly special. n