What is Urban Search and Rescue?

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  • Written By: Margo Upson
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2019
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Urban search and rescue (US&R) is a task force that is responsible for aiding in the recovery of victims from disaster zones. It was founded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1989. Each urban search and rescue team contains two groups of 31 team members, four canines, and any equipment that they might need.

US&R teams are ready to go at a moments notice in response to any natural or man-made disaster. Whenever disaster strikes, FEMA sends the closest teams to the location. Urban search and rescue teams have assisted in victim rescues after hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. They have also worked to save lives and recover bodies after terrorist attacks, technical accidents (such as a building collapse) and hazardous material spills or accidents. US&R teams were on the scene of the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, and other disasters around the world.

Each urban search and rescue team is comprised of specialists in four areas. The first specialty is in searching for victims. These specialists are responsible for locating victims in a disaster site. After the victims have been located, the second set of specialists take over. Rescuers have been specially trained in the skills needed to get to, and retrieve, victims. This may involve digging through tons of concrete and steel, or even organizing complicated rescues from flooded areas.


Any time that US&R workers will be digging through collapsed buildings, or doing other dangerous rescues, the technical specialists are responsible for assuring their safety. Technical specialists make sure that the debris has been safely moved out of the way and that there is at most a minimal chance of any further structural collapse. The final set of specialists are the medics. After a victim has been recovered, the medical specialists of the urban search and rescue team are responsible for providing any immediate medical attention that may be required.

When urban search and rescue crews arrive on a scene, the first thing that they do is to assess how safe the search and rescue will be. Steps are made to assure the safety of rescuers before they begin. Heavy equipment is used to remove as much of the debris as possible. As soon as it is safe, the locators go into the area with the dogs, searching for signs of survivors. Locators also use specialized electronic devices to find victims. After victims have been located, the rescue team comes in and removes the person from the disaster site, to someplace where the medical specialists can see to their needs.

Urban search and rescue teams do more than just respond to catastrophes around the globe. They are also involved in training smaller, more localized, emergency response teams. During these training sessions, US&R members show law enforcement and medical crews how to respond to emergencies, allowing them to save lives. By making sure that area rescue teams are in place, there is a better chance that more successful rescue efforts can take place before an urban search and rescue team shows up at the sight of an emergency.


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