SUSAR: Your Friendly Neighborhood US&R Team

March 24, 2011
It is 10:00 am on a Wednesday, and you are sitting in your shift commander’s office looking at the local weather report as the news staff discuss the significant winter storm that is hitting your response area. Your tones drop, and the overhead speaker fills out the box for a reported structural collapse at the local supermarket.

It is 10:00 am on a Wednesday, and you are sitting in your shift commander’s office looking at the local weather report as the news staff discuss the significant winter storm that is hitting your response area. Your tones drop, and the overhead speaker fills out the box for a reported structural collapse at the local supermarket.

Your arrival reveals a significant area of collapse in a very large Type II structure: the parking lot is full of cars; smoke is coming off of the rubble pile; there are multiple walking wounded wandering aimlessly around the scene; and surrounding towns heard the call coming in, so they are asking you if you want them to come (see Photo 1). But, don’t worry; your first alarm assignment is there: two engines; a ladder company; a heavy rescue; one BLS rig; and your tour commander car.

Uh-oh…luckily, your department has a documented emergency response plan for such a crisis. Going through the chain, you have to activate your local office of emergency management (OEM), which will then request state assistance. Once they arrive and determine it is beyond their capabilities, then they can ask for the feds to send out some help. They will send out the three closest Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) teams up on rotation. How long will it take? Well, that depends how far the closest FEMA team is from your emergency?

SUSAR Association

If your response area is in a state that participates in the State Urban Search and Rescue Association (SUSAR), you are in a bit of luck. You may have a team closer than you think. The SUSAR Association was founded in August 2006, and represents more than 31 states, including Puerto Rico. The original design of the concept was to provide support and positive relations for all state US&R teams across the country. They represent state, commonwealth, and territorial US&R teams that support the mission of the association.

The organization began to breathe life after rescue leaders from around the nation began to identify shortcomings in securing US&R training for their team members. It turned out that a lot of leaders were sharing similar experiences, and decided to come together to brainstorm a solution to this issue. Not only did training shortfalls exist, but response troubles existed as well. Leaders told stories of many state teams that sat in wait to respond to incidents of significance, while watching FEMA teams drive past them, en route to the emergency. The conclusion was evident; the State US&R teams needed a “dog in the fight,” so to speak. This led to the forming of the SUSAR Alliance.

The members of this organization agreed on a purpose; “…support and conduct research, education, and informational activities to benefit the communities served by state-level US&R teams; to provide teams a voice in the US&R community; to stimulate the exchange of information among persons and organizations thus engaged in US&R and to disseminate such information and to develop, adopt, and utilize standards for participants and teams engaged in US&R.”

By combining forces, these state team leaders can share concerns and visions about the direction and support of SUSAR teams that could no longer be ignored. Aside from being ready for a large-scale event, one major part of the focus is to dispel the notion that these state US&R teams do not stack up well against their FEMA counterparts.

Well-Trained Resources

For example, let’s go back and re-visit that scenario at the beginning of our discussion. What needs to be done, and who is going to do it? Well, your local OEM has determined that a US&R response is required, and a team has been called. Here is a list of the members who will deploy and what they will take care of:

Structures Specialists will review the scene and determine the integrity of whatever structure is still standing, and provide safety points and concerns to responders as they shore up the pile and the debris areas. These specialists calculate loads and locations for shoring locations and construction types, and help identify safe havens for responders operating in the “hot zone.”

Search Specialists will begin to search the pile, with high-tech cameras and listening devices, canine resources, and tools to converge on any potential space where a victim could be located (see Photo 2). They will also map out the area of damage, mark victim locations, and develop maps and support documents for traversing the affected area.

Rescue Specialists go to work where the search specialists and the canines confirm a location of a victim. The process of cutting, breaking, and burning through mountains of rubble in a systematic method so as not to further injury is bestowed on these experts (see Photo 3).

Safety Specialists are continually traversing the pile and the surrounding areas, checking for potential hazards that may come from compromised structures, changes in atmospheric conditions, and personnel safety issues as well.

Medical Specialists go in with the search, rescue, and safety personnel and provide patient stabilization and initial care for the victims who are being removed from the pile. This component consists not only of EMTs and paramedics, but highly trained doctors and nurses as well.

HazMat Specialists begin to evaluate the atmospheric conditions of the site and continue this evaluation throughout the event. As the incident progresses, the atmosphere can change and these experts are the first line of defense for the responders (see Photo 4).

Rigging Specialists supply heavy machinery and crane support for the operation, and are the focal point of direction for these resources. Many a time it is necessary to move a very large chunk of debris, instead of breaching through it. These folks are the ones for the job.

Technical Information Specialists are charged with the responsibility to keep the lines of communications open between the incident commanders and the troops on the ground. Whether it is through written documentation or open radio airwaves, these professionals keep everyone talking on the scene.

Logistics Specialists are the go-to personnel for any US&R operation, for anything, period. These personnel are responsible for packaging, shipping, deploying, repairing, procuring, returning, and restocking all resources that are needed at the incident. From setting up a Base of Operation, to bringing it all back home, these experts get the job done.

In case you are wondering if this list describes the FEMA resources or the SUSAR resources, you are right; it describes both types of resources. In fact, most State US&R teams have deliberately equipped and staffed their components to mirror the FEMA task forces (see Photo 5).

The SUSAR Association is focused on more than just response issues. The association has groups that work toward a standardized typing and credentialing agreement, training recommendations, and work groups in specific rescue-response disciplines. Some teams have also sent members to cross-train with other SUSAR teams, providing cost savings to local taxpayers by coordinating training, operational guidelines, and specifications throughout the organization’s member teams. Furthermore, there is an e-group that all members have access to, furthering the networking capabilities of all involved. Information from members of NFPA committees that pertain to US&R operations and training are available in this group, as well as members of local and federal response organizations that share a common goal of keeping all US&R responses professional and effectual.


The emergency services are faced with providing the safest, most efficient and professional response to all types of incidents and disasters, all while working within the same budgetary restrictions that are effecting everyone nationwide. It is of the utmost importance that all response organizations reach out and identify who these responders are, where they are coming from, and how to request them in the event of an emergency. With a little research and resource gathering, you may find out that a specialized, highly trained and skillful resource is available when you really need it, and a lot closer than you think.

Until next time, stay focused and stay safe.

MICHAEL P. DALEY is a lieutenant and training officer with the Monroe Township, NJ, Fire District No. 3, and is an instructor with the Middlesex County Fire Academy, where he is responsible for rescue training curriculum development. Mike has an extensive background in fire service operations and holds degrees in business management and public safety administration. Mike serves as a rescue officer with the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 and is a managing member for Fire Service Performance Concepts, a consultant group that provides assistance and support to fire departments with their training programs and course development. Mike has been guest on several podcasts including: Successful Rescue Operations in Today's Fire Service, Preparing for Tomorrow's RIT Deployment Today and Basement Fire Tactics Roundtable podcasts. View all of Michael's articles and podcasts here. You can reach Michael by e-mail at: [email protected].

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