Tech Rescue: MILITARY SEARCH & RESCUE TEAMS

In 1775, the military began protecting the United States from its foreign enemies. It has been almost 200 years since an invading army has penetrated the country’s shores. This has been due to the devotion to duty, self-sacrifice and sense of responsibility that the men and women of our armed forces have adhered to for centuries.

Since their inception, the different branches of the military have accomplished a variety of tasks outside of combat. The Navy provides relief to nations all over the world that are hamstrung by disaster. The Air Force is tailor-made for transporting supplies to stricken people wherever they are. The Marine Corps guards embassies all over the world, yet still has time to provide “Toys for Tots.” The Coast Guard’s primary mission is to protect life on the sea and shore. The Army has dispatched medical and logistical aid to rebuild damaged infrastructures countless times.

In 2008, the Secretary of Defense directed the Army to take on a new task designed to help Americans in time of need. The work of turning soldiers into rescue specialists was turned over to two organizations: Army North (ARNORTH) and Civil Support Training Activity (CSTA). ARNORTH handles the administrative functions of the program. The CSTA has practical experience through its work with the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) reconnaissance and decontamination teams that National Guard units throughout the country have established. With this in mind, they have been designated the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) over training and evaluation.

The State of Louisiana is fortunate to have Army active-duty and National Guard search and rescue (SAR) teams. The active-duty team operates out of Fort Polk in the northeastern part of the state and the Guard team works out of New Roads, which is more centrally located near Baton Rouge. State urban search and rescue (USAR) task forces have been invited by both Army teams to conduct joint training missions.

In one exercise, members of several local response agencies traveled to Fort Polk to help the active-duty Army SAR team complete 11 days of training. What we from the civilian sector didn’t know was that the exercise was originally intended to last nine days, but the Army personnel added two days of living in the field to train with us. We were certainly glad they decided to stay out because we found those two days very rewarding. The Army personnel came up with some dynamite scenarios (access underground garage through 200-foot tunnel to find tons of concrete on top of car, on top of second car and on top of a bicycle with a total of five victims). We found the soldiers’ enthusiasm and devotion to duty to be quite contagious.

We brought a few pluses to the table as well. Several of our canine search specialists brought their dogs to the training session. They found the cities built by the Army for simulated combat abutted by huge open fields and large forests to be excellent training grounds for their canines.

At first, the soldiers were skeptical about the canines, but as the first day wore on and the dogs demonstrated their capabilities, the military became true believers. At the end of the first day, we held a planning meeting for the second day’s training. The Army unit commander proposed that the second day start with the canines locating five victims hiding in various structures at the training site, then those victims would then be rescued. As the second day’s training began, the dogs found the victims and were followed by dozens of soldiers who were getting an education in canine search 101.

In another exercise, the USAR task forces were asked to help the National Guard rescuers brush up on their rope-rescue skills prior to their accreditation. There had been a lot of down time after their initial training session and their commanding officer wanted outside assistance in knocking off any potential rust. As it turned out, the Guard members had little need of our assistance as they had kept their skills intact, but it was a great opportunity to build a few bridges and set up future joint training. Once again, all of us who worked with the soldiers were impressed with the enthusiasm shown and the strong desire to master the difficult skills of a rescue technician.

Both Army units in Louisiana have been accredited using scenario-based external evaluations. The members will now be “on mission” – for civilians, that means instantly deployable for two years after accreditation. During that time, their primary mission will be in the rescue, command and hazmat functions in a radioactive environment.

The Louisiana teams have sought out local emergency responders (especially established USAR task forces) for two reasons. First, they know they will be working with these teams someday and don’t want to be shaking hands for the first time on a rubble pile. The members of these military teams are almost all combat veterans who know the value of experience, and they look to rescue teams that have deployed to help round out their education.

In Louisiana, we are working hard to develop a strong state SAR response force. We have established state USAR teams and Regional Response Teams to this purpose and look at the military teams as a welcome addition to our meager resources. These forces will bring skill and ability as well as a huge amount of technical assets to any disaster in our area. The military has worked hard to train their people in the Incident Command System (ICS), but education will not match what both military and civilian teams will pick up when they work out together. We all look forward to furthering our relationships with future training. n

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