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USAR: Be Prepared

by Marcus
USAR be prepared

Every year a number of earthquakes occur all over the world, causing massive damages and loss of life. The dimensions of these catastrophes quickly exceed the possibilities and capacities of many nations to generate quick and sufficient help. Especially when it comes to rescuing trapped victims, time is a key factor as the chances of surviving decline rapidly as every hour passes.

Fire International Disaster Response Germany is a recognised non-profit organisation, which specialises in the fields of wildland firefighting and search and rescue of victims after earthquakes. Fires Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team is available at all times and has an expected time of arrival (ETA) of 36 hours after an event occurs to make an immediate start on the search and rescue activities.

To enable a standard to be established for the work, and to ensure effectiveness and task organisation of the USAR teams, the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) was founded in 1991 under the umbrella of the United Nations. In line with INSARAG guidelines, fire has established a unit with the capacity defined as “medium”. This requires the fire team not only to be able to support itself for up to ten days in a civil disaster environment, but also to work in confined spaces and penetrate concrete walls and ceilings in order to rescue injured people. The team is trained to also perform adequate medical treatment.

To build an effective SAR Team – a team that can make a difference between life and death for entrapped people – highly skilled and motivated personnel are needed that have day-to-day experience in responding to emergencies of all kind, plus they need three things: training; rescue tools; and team spirit.

USAR Be Prepared


The fire approach to USAR Training is based on:

1 Nearly all members are active professional or volunteer firefighters in their communities with years of experience. This includes training for technical rescue, SCBA and Hazmat. Some are also trained as paramedics. Every fire USAR team member can perform a multitude of roles, so the team size can be kept small.

2 On top of this, fire provides specialised training for international deployments. Every member has to go through 20 hours of basic training in international organisations, cultural awareness, personal hygiene, communications, safety and security, and base-camp operations.

3 After this basic training, every future member of the USAR team has to attend a 40-hour USAR technician’s course that includes basic shoring, breaching and breaking, rope rescue and search operations.

4 After completing basic training, a variety of courses are on offer to obtain special qualifications, such as: search specialist, shoring specialist, USAR command, logistics specialist, heavy rigging, and swift-water rescue. In addition, a number of members who are specialised in their local fire departments, in such as diving and confined space operations, add those abilities to our portfolio of competences.

Because all of our members are volunteers and training has to be done in their free time, courses are very concentrated. All theoretical lessons are given to the attendees as pre-course work that will be tested at the beginning of the course. The course itself is mostly hands-on training and exercises.

To provide a state-of-the-art training under financial limitations following rules are adhered to:

– Training must be very demanding; the level of difficulty should be higher than is likely to be experienced in real situations.

– Training must be safe. It is very common worldwide to use abandoned or wrecked buildings for training purposes, but there are situations you just cannot simulate in a safe way in these buildings.

– Training should be reproducible to enable mistakes to be worked on and give the attendants the chance to make it better next time.

– Training should enhance the cooperation within the team. Teamwork along with crew resource management is another essential key to success, as the rescue work is carried out under enormous pressure, in a hostile environment, and with limited personnel.

Two examples to illustrate our approach to training:

Example: Structural Collapse Rescue Simulator

The structural collapse rescue simulator was developed by Paratech and fire for demonstration purposes at Interschutz 2010 exhibition in Leipzig, Germany. After the event it was dismantled and rebuilt at the fire training centre.

The simulator is modular and its design can be changed easily, to simulate a confined space, where the rescuer can be confronted with the following obstacles:

– Concrete wall.

– Wooden wall.

– Brick wall.

– Armchair, washing machine or television set.

The rescuer has to cut, breach or break through it vertically or horizontally – cutting through a high-quality leather armchair is far more challenging than one might think! Additionally, one part of the simulator’s tunnel system has a movable base, seated on rollers. This floor has to be lifted and shored from the inside. This can be done with wooden shoring or a shoring system, but the use of a shoring system is much faster and is much more flexible.

The side walls are made of Plexiglas, so instructors can observe the whole operation from close-up and provide valuable feedback to the trainee.

Example: Handling of Heavy Loads

Inspired by the training done by FEMA-USAR teams, several heavy concrete obstacles are incorporated that have to be manoeuvred through, under or above. The heaviest of these objects is called “Big Moe”, which weighs two tonnes.

To make the task more difficult, no power-driven devices are allowed, just manual tools such as manual jacks. To enhance teamwork, different “race tracks” are created so two or more teams can compete against the clock.


The efficiency of Urban Search and Rescue operations is mainly a question of having the right tools. But, as in every fire and rescue operation, the tools have to follow the tactics. This is particulars so in internationally-operating USAR team, where the work will mainlybe in voids in concrete buildings. The tools have to be:


Remember. there will no big shiny fire truck from which you can jump and start to work. Every single tool has to be airlifted and brought to the scene by any possible means including helicopters, military trucks, pick-up trucks, horse carriage and – if everything fails – by carrying it. Invariably the team will up-load and unload the entire equipment four times, so every kilogramm counts.


The biggest tools are not always the best tools. They should be able to be held and operated in a confined space for a lengthy period of time. They should not produce too much vibration or dust, while still quickly cutting, breaching or lifting. And how these tools are driven has to be thought about. A concrete chainsaw with a small fuel-driven engine cannot be operated for a long period in an enclosed buildings. Electrical or hydraulic devices are mostly lighter, but need their own generator or pump outside the building.


Tools have to function in circumstances that are a designer’s nightmare. If they fail, the whole operation will fail. So, reliable tools are essential and, if possible, back-up key tools should be available.

There are many ways in which the tool cache can be structured and I would suggest to follow the INSARAG guidelines. Within these guidelines, the INSARAG external classification checklist clearly describes what is expected from the team and its tools). More detailed, but only a suggestion is ANNEX I: Suggested USAR Team Equipment List.

From the IEC checklist, the tools needed for rescue operations can be considered as one of the five elements of a USAR Team (the others being management, logistics, search, and medical), in line with the essential capabilities of a USAR Team:

1 Cut, break and breach through concrete walls, floors, columns and beams, structural steel, reinforcing bars, timber and building contents using “dirty” techniques (allowing debris to fall into the void space) or “clean” techniques (preventing debris to fall into the void space).

Typical tools for dirty techniques are sledge hammers, hand-held electric and gas saws with diamond blades, combi-hammers and breakers. They is using Hilti DCH 300 diamond cutters and TE 706 and TE 1500 hammers performing the “Chess” technique.

At the moment, we are evaluating a Lukas concrete crusher to make rapid and “dirty entry. Clean Techniques can be done with concrete chain saws and/or diamond coring systems

2 Rigging, lifting and moving of structural concrete columns and beams as part of a de-layering operation utilising pneumatic lifting equipment, hydraulic lifting equipment, winches, hand tools or a crane (and possibly other heavy machinery).

For lifting, we are using hydraulic tools like the Lukas SC 350 E, airbags with a manual pump – as normally you cannot airlift pressurised equipment – and Habegger that comes in different sizes.

3 Conduct stabilisation operations of structural elements as follows:

– Cribbing and wedges.

– Window/door stabilisation.

– Vertical stabilisation.

– Diagonal stabilisation.

– Horizontal stabilisation

Beside tools to build wooden shoring, fire has a modular shoring system to build interior rescue shoring.

4 Technical rope capability to construct and utilise a vertical raising and lowering system and to construct a system that allows for the movement of a load (including victims) from a high point laterally to a safe point below. This requires a set of rope rescue equipment that should be very easy to use.

USAR Be Prepared

Another important tool consideration is personal equipment. Our personal items at rescue operations comprise:

First-Line Gear (Stuff you should always have with you):

– Protective gear: suit, helmet, gloves, breathing apparatus, masks, knee protectors and work boots.

Folding knife or multi-tool.

– Small flashlight.

– Examination gloves.

– Hi-energy snack.

– Pen and notepad.

– Official-looking identity card.

– Personal items such as a copy of your ID, money and medication.

Second Line Gear (Search & Recon Missions):

Second Line gear is used if search and rescue teams are sent out for area reconnaissance, assessment and light search and rescue operations. They are very mobile, only have a light tool cache with them, such as forcible entry tools, manual hydraulic combi tools and rescue saws. They should have the capability to be operated independantly when away from the base camp for 24 hours

– Load-bearing vest with numerous pockets, customised for your function within the team.

– Hydration bladder.

– Pens, markers and grease pencil.

– Weather-proof notepad.

– Field operations guide.

– Safety glasses and wipe rag.

– Safety goggles.

– Half-mask respirator.

– Flashlight.

– Multi-colour, high-intensity chemical light sticks.

– Disposable ear plugs.

– Small, personal first-aid kit.

– Snack food, such as energy bars.

– Food Rations for 24 hours.

– Spare batteries for your head lamp, lights, GPS unit, etc.

– Compass.

– Zip ties.

– Mini roll of duct tape.

– 15-metre-long parachute cord.

– Travel-size roll of toilet paper.

– Hand sanitiser.

– Sunscreen.

– Lip balm.


Jan Suedmersen

Jan Suedmersen is a USAR specialist with @fire International Disaster Response Germany

For further information, go to www.at-fire.de

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