A look at the Urban Search & Rescue System and local ICS

A look at the Urban Search & Rescue System and local ICS

If you have been following recent events with the tragic condominium collapse in Miami Florida, you most likely have seen the Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) Task Forces at work on the rubble piles of the devastated area. Who are these teams and where did they come from?

Urban Search and Rescue teams and ICS
Photo by Cyberbizsource  June 28, 2021 (https://cyberbizsource.com/2021/06/28/10-dead-151-missing-in-florida-building/)

Although originally designed to respond to earthquakes, US&R Task Forces (TF) routinely respond to other disaster incidents including hurricanes, floods, tornados, and large structural collapse like the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Each TF is made up of dedicated first responders and civilians who specialize in the areas of Technical and canine search, Technical rescue and collapse operations, Hazardous materials, Heavy Rigging, Planning, Safety, Structural Engineering, Emergency Medicine, and Logistics and communications. This expertise is matched with each TF’s extensive, specialized equipment cache that can be transported by ground or by air lift. The Command and Planning components utilize basic and advanced ICS to manage the TF and to plan for operations.

I worked in the US&R system for 25yrs and saw firsthand how getting the right resource, in the right place, at the right time can make a meaningful difference to the victims and communities stricken by disasters.  

How did these teams start?

The concept of the US&R began to take shape in the 1970’s with FEMA earthquake mitigation planning.  The concepts began to take life when several Fire Depts on the east coast began to form “building collapse” rescue teams. These teams began to demonstrate their value in incidents in the U.S. and internationally when the State Department and the Office of Foreign Disaster Aid began to request the teams for disasters overseas.  

FEMA moved forward with creating a national US&R system in 1992 after watching events in the 1980’s like the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, where over 200 rescuers were killed in secondary collapses, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California where a number of rescue resources struggled to keep operations going due to logistical limitations.

FEMA designed and equipped the US&R Task Forces to be able to deploy and conduct around the clock Search and Rescue operations in major disaster environments with little to no initial support. Each TF carries enough supplies and equipment to be totally self-sufficient logistically for at least 72hrs, thereby limiting the support needed from jurisdictions that may already be stretched thin during large incidents.

The TF’s come in two different types:

Type I - is the full TF with 70 people (+10 if going by ground) with the entire equipment cache in 2-3 semi-trailers, with a combination of box trucks, vans, buses, and other assorted support vehicles.

Type 3 – is a smaller group of 35 personnel designed to conduct swift, wide area search missions with minimal equipment, vehicles, and logistical support.

Often these two types of TF’s are paired to work together on deployments, combining their speed and support capabilities as operations adjust to meet the ever-changing needs of the disaster landscape.


The US&R Program continues to evolve, and today we have 28 Federal US&R Task Forces in the country.  These teams are funded by FEMA but are managed and supported by sponsoring agencies at the local and State level. Some are run by a single entity like a large fire dept while others may have many local agencies cooperating with one sponsoring agency to provide staffing and other support. These TF’s are part of the National Response Plan and can be deployed throughout the country as a Federal resource and locally in part or whole for incidents occurring in their home states.

Along with the national TF’s, many states have created their own TF’s for local response. These TF’s mirror the training and equipment of the Federal TF’s but are a state resource. Both Florida and Texas have created a number of these TF’s to respond to the numerous disaster incidents each state experiences on an almost yearly basis. The Miami condo incident is the perfect example of both State and Federal TF’s being deployed to work together with the local incident command.

Whether Federally or State sponsored, the TFs are a unique resource that can deliver highly trained, well equipped rescuers when and where they are needed.  The US&R program is an excellent example of how Local, State, and Federal governments can partner together to become a force multiplier in our response capabilities locally and as a nation.

With the multiple jurisdictions and partners, urban search and rescue teams are a prime example highlighting the necessity for comprehensive ICS training across the board.  The Blue Cell helps to make this obtainable for everyone with their virtual training.


Dan Stutz The Blue Cell Emergency Management Training ICS300 ICS400

Dan Stutz served as a Firefighter with South Metro Fire Rescue and retired as a Captain with 29 years of service. He spent the majority of his time as a Station Officer in the Operations Division and also acted as a Battalion Chief for 7 years. While Dan’s main duties were centered in emergency response, throughout his career he worked on various projects and assignments in the Administrative Division in the areas of:  Hiring, Management Surveys, Fleet Management, Merger & Consolidations, Awards & Employee Recognition, Emergency Planning, and Policy & Guideline development.

In tandem with his fire service career, Dan was also a founding member of CO-TF1 - Colorado’s FEMA Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) Task Force. During his 25 years on the team, he worked as a Logistics team manager, a Task Force Leader, and as a member of the Type I US&R Incident Support Team (IST). He responded to numerous disasters and events including: the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 World Trade Center incident, 2002 Winter Olympics, G8 meeting, flooding events, Hurricanes Katrina & Sandy and 11 other hurricane incidents.

Dan also volunteered with the Arapahoe County IMT (ACIMT) for 9 years. He was a founding member and coordinator for the team and his duties included: Team management, Training, Recruiting, and Response. Dan operated as an Incident Commander and in the Logistics and Plans sections on various County and Regional incidents and events.

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