Public Works and Urban Search and Rescue: What is our role?

David Himes
Assistant Director, Metro Nashville Public Works, Nashville, Tennessee
Member, APWA Emergency Management Committee
Co-Manager, TNTF-2 US&R Task Force

Trucks, heavy equipment, concrete saws, core drills, rebar cutters, hydraulic and air tools, cranes, riggers, planners, logistics specialists, structural engineers...sounds like a construction site, doesn't it? Could be a public works crew performing construction or heavy maintenance on a bridge or other structure.

Actually, it's the backbone of Urban Search and Rescue (US&R). Currently there are 28 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) US&R task forces, 14 National Incident Management System (NIMS) Compliant Type I (Collapsed Search and Rescue) state or locally sponsored task forces, 44 Type II and III state or locally sponsored task forces, and numerous other strike teams.

A typical Type I US&R task force is made up of 70 personnel, millions of dollars of equipment, and training and expertise in the following areas:

  • High angle rope rescue
  • Confined space rescue
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction/Hazardous Materials (WMD/HM) operations
  • Defensive water rescue
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) medical intervention
  • Communications
  • Technical search
  • Logistics
  • Equipment maintenance and operation
  • Planning
  • Safety

Over the years these task forces were developed and operated as fire department assets completely staffed by firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, and a few "private assets" (doctors and engineers). In a number of incidents task forces have called in additional assets with specific expertise. In the cases of the Oklahoma City bombing and the attacks on the World Trade Center, heavy equipment operators, steel workers, and others with specific engineering and construction expertise were required to enable the task forces to complete their tasks.

Recently, the trend has been to include other disciplines to provide more diverse expertise, reduce the amount of training required to field task forces, and increase operational effectiveness. Inclusion of police officers, trained communications technicians, and yes, public works professionals, is now seen as enhancing task force capabilities.

Structural engineers have always been a part of US&R task forces. Who better to inspect damaged or collapsed structures to determine their structural integrity than a trained professional who performs those tasks in their everyday profession? Likewise, who is better qualified to handle any function than personnel who are trained, experienced, motivated, and who perform those functions every day? This is the route we took in organizing Tennessee Task Force 2.

TNTF-2 is a locally sponsored US&R task force designated by the Tennessee Emergency and Management Agency as TNTF-2. There are three US&R task forces in Tennessee including TNTF-1, a FEMA task force. TNTF-2 was born shortly following the Oklahoma City bombing to provide a local US&R capability. Since that time it has developed into a Type I task force meeting all FEMA training and equipment requirements. It was deployed to Mississippi last year in response to Hurricane Katrina.

In addition to structural engineers and specialists, the following task force positions/sections are assigned to other disciplines:

  • Communications Specialists are responsible for the management, operation and maintenance of the task force communications equipment. Radio technicians from our General Services Department of Nashville are assigned to fill these positions.

  • Technical Search Specialists are responsible for performing operations using appropriate electronic search equipment and techniques. Police Department personnel are assigned to these positions. They are also qualified in the area of evidence preservation.

The following positions specifically involve public works:

  • Heavy Equipment and Rigging Specialists are responsible for assessing the need for and capabilities of various construction-related equipment, identifying various rigging techniques, and coordinating efforts between task force personnel and heavy equipment operators. Heavy equipment operators from our Public Works Department are assigned to this position.

  • Logistics Managers are responsible for the management of the equipment cache. Public works supervisory personnel are assigned to this position.

  • Logistics Specialists perform duties in support of the packaging, transport, distribution, security, accountability, and maintenance of the task force equipment cache. These positions are assigned to truck drivers and skilled maintenance workers from our Public Works Department.

The equipment cache that the above positions are responsible for is valued at over three million dollars including the transport vehicles. It is stored and maintained at the Public Works warehouse facility where it is always in a state of readiness.

Public Works Department personnel assigned to the task force do so on a voluntary basis and spend countless hours each year maintaining equipment, training and exercising. Department management strongly supports these activities as it not only is mandated by an Executive Order, but this participation also increases their knowledge and experience which help provide the department with highly trained and disciplined employees.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8 requires states and urban areas to apply capability-based planning to support the national preparedness goal and to address the four mission areas (prevent, protect, respond and recover). The universal task list identifies the operations and tasks that state and local government are expected to perform; and the target capabilities list identifies the critical capabilities that must be performed, either through local resources or mutual aid. Urban Search and Rescue is one of the capabilities that must be performed.

If your city is operating a US&R team or is planning to develop one, I strongly recommend that you look at including multiple disciplines in order to field a team with diverse expertise and optimal operational effectiveness.

David Himes can be reached at (615) 862-8755 or