The “Search” in Urban Search and Rescue

Nov. 3, 2011
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 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 searches
  • 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, junk yards, 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.

A Type I Certification for a canine requires the Type II canine unit to search two different rubble piles: one with limited access and one with full accessibility. The canine unit is limited to 20 minutes of operational time and every victim must be found, with the exception of missing one victim. Here is the catch: the canine unit does not know how many “victims” are in the pile. Additional distractions may be put into the pile by examiners, such as food, clothing and deceased animals. Type II canines must recertify every two years and Type I canines every three years.

During the Operation

The initial concerns when working on the pile are ensuring the safety of everyone, including canines. Hazardous Materials Specialists check the atmosphere around and on the pile before search personnel scour the area for victims and signs of potential survivors. This is of paramount importance; there are no effective means of respiratory protection for the canine, and the handler may have to opt out of breathing apparatus and respirators, as they will be giving instructions for the canines to follow. It is also important to limit the amount of personnel in the area to be searched by the canine unit. Rescuers standing near a potential “victim” leave their scent there, masking the scent of the victim. Once the area is confirmed for further search, Technical Search Specialists enter with cameras and listening devices to comb the “hot” area for positive confirmation of victim locations.

Once the canine unit leaves the pile, it may be necessary to decontaminate the canine of any materials from the area. To do this, many handlers use a heavily diluted mixture of detergent and water, and keep an ample supply of eye drops on hand to keep the canines clean. Should the canines need further medical attention, search personnel seek out local avenues of emergency medical facilities for the animals before a crisis occurs.

Consider the following: many times while operating on the pile, tools may break or fail during the operation. When this happens, most USAR teams have ample supplies of tools and equipment or trained staff to make necessary adjustments to get the tools running again. The support of the canine unit is not so simple; many times, the needs of the animals are taken care of by the handlers themselves. In many instances, travel time for additional training for certification, food, veterinarian support or other needs of the canines are borne by the handlers, for the most part. This team is more than just another resource in the USAR arsenal; it’s a bond that becomes part of the family for both the handler and the canine.


The search component provides a critical support function to team efficiency in the field of urban search and rescue. Plotting and mapping, pinpointing potential victim locations and a blend of canine and human skills that make up the canine unit lead the charge toward victim recovery and removal.

Each resource carries a tremendous amount of technical capability and expertise, and there must be an avenue of support to keep both the technical and personal potential of the USAR team focused and driven. Someone may depend on it.

• • •

A special thanks to Alice Holmes, K-9 search coordinator for New Jersey Task Force 1, for her contributions to this article. Additionally, congratulations to her and her dog “Ranger” for their recent certification as a Type I canine unit.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!