Building a Better SAR


             Teresa MacPhereson VA TF-1

             Jim Yeager TX TF-1

             Glenn Palmer AZ TF-1

FEMA’s Wide-Area Search course is taught in four modules.  Preparedness, search management and planning, field operations, and then a field exercise.  I took the course at West Metro Fire and Rescue in Lakewood, which is also home to Colorado Task Force One.  Many TF1 guys were among my 35 classmates.

What is a wide area search?  WAS includes these elements: large geographical area affected, an unknown number of victims, overwhelmed local resource capacity and recovery requiring a variety of resources.  Hurricane Katrina and the space shuttle Columbia disaster are some examples of wide-area search response.  In the space shuttle disaster there was a known number of victims, but artifact recovery of unknown scope was also a goal.

In Colorado the local Sheriff is responsible for search and rescue and can call on a nationwide web of state task forces available through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which settles key issues up front: liability and reimbursement.

Like any emergency operations response, preplanning is the starting point.  Identifying resources and capabilities, and developing relationships is key.  Pre-positioning response assets so that they are protected during the event and accessible after an event is important as well.  Familiarity with the National Incident Management System and its typing methodology makes support and logistics easier by standardizing capability ratings.  The list of potential hazards that could be encountered in a wide area search is pretty comprehensive.  You would have to include weather, flooding, sewage, debris, loose animals, downed trees, criminal activity, utilities dangers, hazardous materials, infrastructure collapse, and civil unrest.

With team safety the priority, the team manager needs to keep in mind whether his team has the proper equipment, the proper training and whether the risk justifies the benefit.  This brings three important questions to mind: how can I mess this up?  How can I keep from messing this up?  If I cannot keep from messing this up, who do I call?  Of course we know that the best way to keep from messing this up is to practice, learn lessons, and then prepare again with your learned lessons.  This is what has matured this course, and our instructors all came with a big bag full of personal experience, which made the lectures meaty and practical instead of a dry PowerPoint-and-chalkboard experience.

Day Two had several practical exercises. Jim scattered washers and our squad had to determine critical separation and find them quickly and effectively.  Glenn ran us through a hailing (and listening) exercise.  Teresa had us hunting Post-Its in a duplicated, systematic search.  Much of the learning was on tasking and effectively briefing your squad, which could contain members unfamiliar with your routines.  Terms new to me were PAR (Personnel Accountability Report, done on a frequent basis and reported to IC per briefing instructions) and LCES, a sequential safety process providing Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes and Safety zones.

Decontamination protocol was discussed and it was pointed out that during Katrina decontamination was an everyday need before entering base camp.

The benefit of incorporating local knowledge and sometimes force protection were discussed.  During Katrina, responders were exposed to gang battles as they searched for survivors until force protection was added.

In the afternoon we discussed structure markings, victim markings, and search markings and then played Markings Jeopardy which included the category Potpourri.  Map sketching and an introduction to the United States National Grid (USNG) completed day two.

Wide Area Search - hurricane deployment

Hurricane deployment tabletop. Photo by J W Stephens.

On Thursday we exercised what we learned, first with turning over intelligence between search squads, then with a tabletop based on Hurricane Katrina.  We finished off with a post-test and were released by 13:00.

Wide Area Search - hurricane deployment

Hurricane deployment tabletop. Photo by J W Stephens.

For O.M.E.G.A.’s LUSAR members, Wide Area Search comes into play if they open their door (if they have one left) and see a Wide Area Disaster and they are invited to stay on when the pros arrive.  Through the Colorado Volunteer Mobilizer it adds to one’s training but TF1 will get called and if they need qualified volunteers we could be asked to mobilize.  Having WAS-trained members on the O.M.E.G.A. roster positions O.M.E.G.A. to support ESF-9 in the future.  Indirectly though, this training builds better incident managers who are more efficient, more aware of what is possible with scale and builds relationships with the boots currently on the ground.

Colorado Task Force One, sponsored by West Metro Fire Rescue, includes firefighters, paramedics, physicians, structural engineers, hazardous materials technicians, heavy rigging specialists, and canine handlers.  It’s one of FEMA’s 28 Urban Search and Rescue teams.  CO-TF1 can deploy in as little as four hours, sustain its operations for 72 hours without local resources and operate for two weeks in the field.  Rodney Tyus manages the program for WMFR.

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