Every time a hiker is lost in the woods, the local news stations will no doubt show images of helicopters buzzing overhead, German Shepherds sniffing the forest floor and scores of people combing the woods in search of clues. This brief bit of insight into the world of search and rescue (SAR) teams is about all the general public ever sees. In reality, SAR goes way beyond these glimpses on the news — it’s an extensive emergency service performed by highly trained military specialists, local law enforcement and civilian volunteers.
The goal of SAR is to locate, stabilize and extract individuals in distress. That can mean a hiker on the side of a mountain, a sailor lost at sea, a trapped urban disaster survivor, a captured soldier or an Alzheimer’s patient wandering city streets. Each area of SAR employs techniques specific to the circumstance. Air and sea rescue requires skilled ocean swimmers and helicopter pilots. Combat rescue uses the military’s most accomplished Special Forces teams. Urban SAR requires hazardous material experts and structural specialists.
The National SAR School for the U.S. Military is located at the Coast Guard Training Center in Yorktown, Va. Jointly operated by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Coast Guard, its motto says it all: “Always Ready, That Others May Live.” The school started with a scant $15,000 and only six trained instructors, but it celebrated its 40th anniversary in October 2006, having trained more than 29,000 people from 148 different countries in maritime and inland SAR procedures [source: Coast Guard].
Students at the school are trained by experienced SAR specialists, many of whom are alumni. They can accommodate up to three simultaneous classes of students learning planning techniques and practicing real-life SAR scenarios.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established the National Response Plan for disasters in 1991 and sponsors 25 national USAR task forces. In the event of a homeland disaster, FEMA sends the three closest USAR teams within six hours of being notified — more teams will follow if necessary. The following are considered urban disasters:
- Plane crashes
- Hazardous material spills
- Catastrophic structural collapses
USAR teams perform a supporting role to the local and state emergency systems, who act as lead. Each USAR task force consists of two 31-person teams and four SAR dogs.
The USAR teams are trained in four specialized fields:
- Search – finding disaster victims
- Rescue – extracting the victims from the area
- Technical – ensuring the safety of the rescuers with the help of structural specialists
- Medical – providing medical assistance to injured victims and rescuers
The most massive USAR mission in U.S. history followed the events of Sept. 11. On that day, terrorists collapsed the Twin Towers in New York City with commercial jetliners, leaving behind injured survivors buried under millions of pounds of rubble. Twenty FEMA USAR teams were dispatched to New York to rescue and recover the survivors. Trained SAR dogs were a key component to the rescue operations at ground zero and made up the largest deployment of rescue dogs in U.S. history with more than 80 on duty. Dogs worked in 12-hour shifts with equal amounts of rest and search time. (You can read more about SAR dogs in How Search-and-Rescue Dogs Work.) Rescue workers also used electronic listening devices and search cameras to help locate survivors.