The USAR Incident Support Team

There is a common belief that the decisions made within the first five minutes will dictate how the next 24 hours will go at the scene of any emergency. Some emergencies can be considerably overwhelming to first responders, and quickly overcome the...


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There is a common belief that the decisions made within the first five minutes will dictate how the next 24 hours will go at the scene of any emergency. Some emergencies can be considerably overwhelming to first responders, and quickly overcome the capabilities of local emergency crews. This is especially true with significant events involving collapsed buildings and other urban search and rescue (USAR) responses.

As with any incident, time is of critical importance; it is imperative that the command staff identify the needs of the incident and begin to move necessary resources to the scene as soon as possible. For USAR teams, it is not as simple as calling the local dispatch center and “ordering” these resources. It takes time to go through the proper channels at the local, state and federal levels to get the authorization for deploying the team. But once the deployment is authorized, there will be a team of critical personnel deployed ahead of the USAR forces: the Incident Support Team (IST).

The IST is a fast-moving deployment team charged with providing advice, command support and assistance, logistical coordination and support, and direction for USAR operations at the incident scene. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has developed this resource to respond on a national level; however, many local rescue teams and state USAR teams have embraced this resource approach on a home-field jurisdictional level.

First on the scene

This team is made up of specialists who are highly experienced firefighters, rescuers, officers, physicians, engineers and law enforcement personnel who set the stage for and coordinate all task force operations. Mobilizing and deploying USAR resources for disaster response can be a formidable task (photo 1). Many of these teams provide a wide variety of technical rescue capabilities, including search, rescue, water rescue and medical capabilities. To maximize the speed and efficiency in which these resources are mobilized and used, the IST is sent to the scene first.

The initial IST can be comprised of up to 20 personnel, including positions such as:

• Team leaders

• Team commanders

• Safety officers

• Section chiefs

• Structures specialists

• Communications leaders

• Medical unit leaders

• Situation unit leaders

As the incident increases in size and complexity, or if duties and responsibilities of the team expand, it may become necessary to expand sections of the IST, in a similar fashion as the Incident Management System (IMS) can be broadened. These specialists can provide guidance and direction for state and local officials with technical assistance and advice, management and coordination of USAR resources, mitigation measures, support needs and logistical support.

Setting standards

As with every other position in the USAR world, there are requirements for the IST team members in regard to mobilization and performance standards:

• Be physically fit to perform in the disaster environment

• Be trained in basic life support (BLS) and CPR

• Be aware of the signs of critical incident stress

• Be available for mobilization within two hours

• Be capable of functioning in hazardous and stressful situations for long periods under adverse conditions

• Maintain current inoculation status

• Trained in various task force functions, including USAR operations, strategy, tactics and safety considerations, and general state/local emergency management structure

• Strong communications skills, both orally and written, using current communication systems

• Completed the FEMA IST course

On scene, the IST staff will meet with the command staff and determine the needs, complexity and the duration of the operation that would require USAR deployment (photo 2). There are some critical points that have to be addressed to determine the extent of the deployment, such as cause of the event; accountability/people unaccounted for; affected critical infrastructure; governmental property/responsibility; resources available in the area; and command staff and designation.

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