The world of search and rescue has changed dramatically. As population growth has accelerated and cities have expanded, focus has increasingly turned to urban space, the most complicated and high-risk environment in which such operations are carried out. Urban search and rescue (US&R) presents a unique challenge, demanding both a highly specialized, yet multidisciplinary approach. Modern US&R teams include personnel from police, fire and emergency medical services.
Where previous deployment of US&R teams was confined to natural land disasters such as earthquakes and landslides, they have grown to encompass extreme weather like tornadoes and hurricanes and more recently, terrorist attacks. Events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy showed the central importance of US&R teams in emergency situations when attempting to limit the loss of life and locate, stabilize and rescue survivors.
US&R teams in the United States are among the best and most highly trained in the world. But often the success and failure of operations is dictated not by training or ability, but rather by the equipment at a team’s disposal. The past decade has seen the proliferation of a wide variety of tools designed to enable US&R teams to extricate and stabilize victims. Clumsy and imprecise jacks have made way for sophisticated Kevlar inflatable lifting bags and shoring appliances. Medical science has advanced to a point unrecognizable from the turn of the century, with supplies and vital equipment both more effective and portable than before, a crucial improvement. But in the critical search phase of the operation, technologies designed to locate trapped persons have proven frustratingly ineffective.
FEMA established the National Response Plan for disasters in 1991 and sponsors 28 national US&R task forces trained to deal with structural collapse. These provide a supporting role to local and state emergency systems. FEMA publishes a 60-page list of more than 2,000 recommended items for teams. In this comprehensive document, the list of devices recommended as “technical search specialist equipment” consists of just a fiber-optic cable camera, snake-eye camera (or equivalent), portable electronic listening device and GPS receivers used with mapping software.
It’s widely acknowledged that existing methods of victim detection are less than ideal and that any improvements will likely come from technological breakthroughs. US&R teams rely on physical void search, audible callout, electronic viewing, electronic listening and canine search. Even if all are used in conjunction, experienced searchers know that the techniques and equipment at their disposal are often insufficient. Physical searches and audible callouts involve the mass deployment of teams using grid patterns to ensure full coverage. Aside from being unable to detect hidden and unresponsive victims, and therefore those most in need of attention, the tactics are grossly inefficient.
Electronic viewing devices — including search cameras, infrared devices and fiber-optic cables — can augment physical searches, but even small, flexible cameras are often limited in their ability to penetrate into pockets within rubble.
Infrared devices also have drawbacks. Despite allowing operators to see through smoke and dust, they cannot distinguish between heat signature profiles behind obstructions, meaning that it’s impossible to tell whether a heat source is from a survivor or a fire.
Audio and seismic units can be used to enhance physical searches. The system works by placing an array of listening devices around the perimeter of a search area and determining which one picks up the strongest sounds. But drawbacks include limited range, reduced effectiveness when probing concrete and susceptibility to interfering signals (as well as the inability to detect unconscious victims).
Have Dogs Had Their Day?
It is somewhat interesting to note that even today, the most effective means of locating uncommunicative or unconscious people is still by using trained sniffer dogs.
Even with the extensive training and excellence of the canine units used in US&R, they come with inherent limitations, particularly when navigating collapsed buildings, rubble and other hazards posed by a typical urban disaster zone. In 2006, in an attempt to surmount these difficulties, a joint task force at the International Conference on System of Systems Engineering explored the possibility of augmenting dogs with existing technology. It proposed that a suite of supporting technologies be used to extend the dog’s potential area of operation and allow a greater distance between dog and handler. The team conducted initial experiments with limited success, and although dogs are still thought to represent the most effective search tool, their limitations are well publicized.