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Mountain Search and Rescue groups may also be activated by the Sheriff in response to urban emergencies both large and small. This could include fires, earthquakes, flooding, large hazardous chemical spills, train accidents, urban plane crashes, civil unrest and a host of other disaster related occurrences. The common element in these cases is that the SAR team will be operating mainly in an urban setting using the well trained alpine skills that they use for back country operation. Many of the systems for technical evacuation and roped litter work are exactly the same as alpine or back country operations. Of course some systems will be adapted to a more practical setting based on the environment. It will be more probable that direct operation with fire units that have been trained to the California Fire Martial's Heavy Rescue course will occur.  

It is important that the Urban disaster responder (team member) be aware of the various extra and hidden dangers that may exist in the urban setting that would not be common in the back country. Of course it is not practical for the team member to become well versed in every aspect of possible urban rescue but the member needs to be aware of hazards and limitations. With the skills listed in this chapter the team member should be able to provide a high degree of usefulness if the need arises. In addition to the basic training and preparedness offered by the team training, Heavy Rescue I, which is a State Fire Marshall Approved training course, is periodically offered by the county to team members.  

This chapter attempts to provide an overview on how the SAR member can best apply his skills in an urban environment. The SAR member is referred to outside sources for additional details regarding operating in the urban environment. SAR stresses that the USAR environment presents may hazards that one would not expect in the Alpine environment. In actual operations always seek advise of those that are better educated or work in the environment on a regular basis. Above all, maintain a safe attitude toward executing any rescue.  


Telpher Line  This is equivalent to the tyrolean in alpine rescue. This is often documented as a single line system. In a drastic situation a single line system may be justified, however in all but the worst possible cases, two lines should be utilized for safety reasons.  

Guide Line Equivalent to a tag line in rescue systems.  

Rescue Ladder Typically a 12 to 18 foot ladder that meets NFPA standards for fire service.  

Spar  The two major side of a ladder.  

Rungs The steps of the ladder that connect the spars.  

Gin A vertical assembly supported at the top with guy wires used for raising or lowering rescue systems.  

Ladder Sling Is a procedure for wrapping the spars of a ladder with a webbing runner to provide an anchor attachment point.  

Lashing Is a rope wrapping and frapping technique used to secure two or more support members. (This is literally taken from the Boy Scout Manuals.)  


Nail Types Different nail types are useful in the USAR application 6d, 8d, double head nails are most common in 2" through 4 inches.  

Cribbing This is a specific stacking of lumber, typically 2x4's or 4/4's designed to temporarily support weight or operate as a fulcrum for a lever.  

Nail Pullers A device similar to a crowbar used specifically to extract nails.  

Table Saws Are power tools in which a table is provided to guide the lumber being cut by a fixed blade saw.  

Claw Hammer Any hammer having a claw used to extract nails.  

Framing Hammer A specific claw hammer having a corrugated waffle head (striking area) to help maintain contact with the nail head surface during rough framing (only thing applicable to USAR).  

Sledges A heavy mallet (usually 4 lbs or heavier) typically with two striking heads. This may be long or short handled. Useful in breaking brick wall and driving stakes.  

Circular Saw Is a hand power tool used to cut lumber. Typically electric but gas powered saws are available.  

Pry Bars These are steel bars available from 24 inches to 8 feet. Their use is basically a lifting tool by which heavy objects may be moved.  

Crowbars A short pry bar often used to extract large nails.  

Cutting Jig Is any device created to help produce shoring or ribbing material of standard or selected sizes.  

Floor Jacks Are standard jacks typically used to raise vehicles. Typically rating is 1 to 3 tons.  

Screw Jacks Are high gain jacks based around concentric screw assemblies. Units in this category have ratings of up to 25 tons.  

Team Response and Pre-Plan  

A detailed disaster plan exists for the team's response to a local earthquake or other disasters that may eliminate or tax normal existing lines of communication. The plan is periodically updated by the team management. After a significant event, such as a local major earthquake, the team has pre-authorization to self-activate.  

As early as possible a team leader will contact dispatch and assign himself as the team contact. The team will then attempt to create a communication path amongst its members using any available and practical means. This will first verify that each team member's household is intact or will help in rendering aid if needed. Depending on local damage and personal availability, members will then muster at selected meeting spots around the county. If a member's local damage is minimal, he is available, and transport is available, the meeting spot will be the Sheriff station #10. If local damage is high, the team member will attempt to organize and develop an assistance plan in his neighborhood. He should use the team contact line (SARNET, MRA Simplex, etc.) to help acquire further aid and assistance. Details and further assignments will then be made by the team Operation Leaders as the situation unfolds.  

The overall goal is to protect and care for the team members, and to then provide the fastest and simplest form to dispatch the team and to advise dispatch of the team's available resources.  

Since it is impossible to know what communication resources will be available, the member must use whatever is working. The earthquake pre-plan lists some strategic radio locations which will help with simplex communication between the team members on the MRA frequency. SARNET provides excellent coverage over the county providing it survives. Phone traffic may be spotty but one can leave a message on the voice mail (don't expect the message to indicate that a local disaster has occurred).  

Home and Personal Precautions  

As is the case with all true emergencies, one never knows where or at what time the emergency will occur. The rescuer stays prepared for disasters such as earthquakes and floods by practice of basic skills and recurring training in "What if" conditions. The rescuer must contemplate what preparation is needed if the rescue response requires that he be gone from home for an extended period of time (say a week); or what preparation is needed if the disaster occurs at home.  

If the disaster is away from home, and the team is assigned to help, a fair time commitment will normally be expected covering from 72 hours to 1 week. Family and employers must be aware of this time commitment,and plans must be made accordingly. Not everyone can afford this impact to their daily schedule and that is understood. Basic personal preparedness should include:

  • Provisions at work to take an extended emergency leave

  •  A family member or friend that can help with kids

  • Extra cash money or funds available

  • Personal business not left to the last minute

  • Message machine or place a message can be left

  • Directions for family to contact proper S/O department

  • Available phone list to contact other team members

  • Maintain personal gear in a state of readiness

In general the idea is to be normally available and prepared. Work commitments and personal finances do not always lend themselves in favor of a volunteer rescue team. Having spare money at home could allow the family to order pizza or dine out during the activation. Phone traffic at disaster sites is often difficult and overloaded even with cellular phones so the ability to tie up business deals or other personal business may be impossible from the disaster site. Families should know the proper way to contact the station or the in town coordinator to get a message to a member in the field. Also since it is impossible to predict times and availability while in the field, a message machine at home or a place to leave a message will help greatly. The team will often send a message to an in town coordinator who will relay the message to each active member's household as major events unfold. Families should consider offering assistance to other families that may need some help.  

A major concern is preparedness for a disaster that occurs in one's own area. Much literature is circulated throughout the community for earthquake preparedness. Having one's SAR gear all collected and in a vehicle presents a good start to being prepared. In the event of a local disaster, the team member's primary responsibility is to his family. Once a member's family is settled, then he can evaluate his ability to help others in his community. The following preparations should be made by the member:  

Supply of food, water, clothing, money, and first aid gear should be stored in protective containers in several places (car, garage, mobile home, closet) to increase the odds that some of it will not be destroyed. Include necessary prescription medication that may be needed. Consider the inclusion of cooking and eating gear, water filtration devices, toilet paper, plastic bags, blankets, rain gear, sleeping bags, shoes, AM/FM radio, flashlight with extra fresh batteries.  

The member should be familiar enough with his residence and have sufficient tools to shut off water, natural gas, and  electricity at his residence. A wrench should be permanently connected to the gas main so one will always be available if the main is accessible.  

A family preplan should be instituted so that family members will know where to go if they are shopping, at schools, or wherever. Neighbors should consider checking with each other after the event. The pre-plan should include first aid training for children as soon as is practical.  

Vehicles should always be at least one quarter full. (Helps keep the fuel pump from clogging anyway.)  This will allow some mobility if the vehicle is drivable. Storing gasoline at a residence is not considered a safe provision unless proper storage accommodations are met.  

Having an out-of-area contact that can be used as a message center or place where one's family can be taken until the situation can be rectified would be very helpful. The member should consider how a message can be sent to other team members to indicate their status. (The team preplan attempts to form a communication link between the members as soon as possible after a local disaster.)  One might consider obtaining a ham license and acquiring a VHF HAM radio to increase the odds of successful communication.  

A supply of tools that may be helpful (hammer, wrenches, nails, crowbar, dikes, etc) in providing hasty repairs, shoring, or even extrication should be kept handy. Large pry bars or garage jacks may also be useful if one normally owns these elements. Plywood boards and 2x4's will also prove useful.  

The team member should make sure that a current S/O disaster information sheet is filed with the team secretary and the sheriff's personal department. After any major local disaster it is important to attempt communication with the team as the team will be exerting effort to contact each member's household. Even if one cannot respond, communication must be made with the team to prevent wasting resources.  

One should evaluate "If I am given thirty seconds to abandon my home" and his family is safe, "what would I take with me?"  

Urban Structures  

The team member may be assigned to search collapsed structures or enter structures destroyed by water, fire, or mud. Although a complete course could exist covering the many facets and dangers of building construction, a short overview is given in this manual. In these assignments heavy reliance is given to local building and safety officials, fire responders specially trained in building design, and team members who are building contractors or have civil or mechanical engineering experience.  

Single Story Wood structures comprise a majority of homes in the Ventura area. Typically these are placed on a concrete slab but a sub-earthen foundation and basement may exist. In this type structure, the weight of the roof and top of the home is supported by the bearing walls of the home. The framing structure of the home and any internal load bearing walls are created using wooden beams, 4x4s and 2x4s. This construction will typically shift during failure rather than directly collapse. The distributed support will tend to create plenty of voids within the single story wood structure. The cohesive force and the tolerance of wood to compression will tend to keep the home in major sections. Tornado damage (which is not typical for Ventura county) can splinter homes due to the explosive (or implosive) force of the pressure differential. Gas lines are easily ruptured when the structure moves away from the foundation or pipes are ruptured. Communication should be possible with a responsive trapped subject from the outside by yelling.  

In approaching this type of structure, one should evaluate utilities (gas, electric, water), note any hazards, ascertain from people outside if persons are trapped inside. If persons are trapped inside, execute an external hailing search in an attempt to locate the subjects. If it is possible to help the subjects easily escape (lifting some boards, directing them to an open window, etc.) do so expediently and move subjects away from the structure.  

Two story wood structures are similar to the single story counterparts with the inclusion of more weight being supported by the walls of the structure. Also electricity and utilities may be present in the space between floors as well as the attic above the second story. Subsequent collapses after structural failure may be more prevalent in two story homes than single story homes due to the weight being supported.  

External stucco homes are homes that contain a wooden frame covered by a wire mesh and a concrete type substance (stucco) creating the outer coating of the building. Structurally this is similar to the wooden homes except that the weight of the wall themselves is increased. The wire mesh and stucco material are more difficult to cut than the wooden wall coverings. Axes or sawsalls are best used when cutting through stucco walls. The wire mesh creates a hazard for hands and face cuts. The weight of the stucco complicates building searches. Stucco walls are more likely to break or crumble into sections connected by wire mesh. If a wall section must be raised or jacked, shoring must accommodate the many ways in which the wall may fracture.  

Multi-family dwellings (Duplexes, Condos, Town Homes, small Apartments, and small motels) may consist mainly of wooden frames with the possibility of additional steel beams, or extremely large wooden roof beams. The failure and or state of these extra support members may hold information concerning the subsequent collapse of the complement of the structure.  

Brick walled homes have their supporting structure created from masonry construction of brick or block and mortar. Masonry walls by themselves create an extreme danger due to the weight of the building material. As mortar ages, it looses cohesiveness which weakens the wall. Events such as earthquakes may attempt to twist or rotate the roof load of the home. In a wooden home, this rotation may bend, shift, or snap some wall members. However in a brick or block structure, with walls that are highly incompressible or in-flexible, the structure is more likely to catastrophically fail. However a wooden home affected by fire might be more likely to fail than a brick equivalent structure.  

There are many different types of brick structures. Construction types over the years have drastically changed the type of building materials and the construction techniques. Commercial brick buildings built before the 1980's are often seen with seismic upgrades to their structures. This upgrading may take many forms. California regulations in 1976 included many provisions for earthquake tolerance in structural design. Building built prior to 1976 may have much less tolerance to an earthquake. Buildings constructed prior to the 1940's may have a rigid clay tile structure that is very intolerant to earthquakes. Extreme caution must be taken when entering any brick type structure. Rubble searching under a collapsed wall may be required. In this case, the wall has completely failed and must be removed in pieces to gain access to the structure within. 

Industrial buildings add another dimension of complexity. Some structures are designed to have internal cranes which carry heavy loads and run from high voltage exposed metal bars. Walls may be supported by steel beams, trusses, block, concrete pillars, or even laid up concrete. Entry into these type of structure typically will require heavy equipment and experts in their design and dangers.  

Urban Hazards  

After a disaster such as an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado rescue teams are called to work in areas where deadly secondary safety hazards exist. The SAR member must be aware of these potential elements in order to avoid them.  

The potential for secondary structure collapse is high in areas where supporting walls, beams, or members have been stressed. After shocks, storms, or high winds could cause buildings to collapse. Be aware of freeway overpasses, high tension wires, flood control dams, and underground voids that may be suspect or unstable.  

Industrial areas with hazards or explosive chemicals can be harmful. Chemical stored for years in family garages could have mixed creating a hazardous condition. Electricity, natural gas, sewage all present hazards to the rescue worker.  

In approaching a collapsed structure one must maintain a safe working distance from suspect structures. Hillside failure, landslides, and major rock fall can create a hazard even in the rural setting.  

General Urban Searching  

In a disaster aftermath, searching is divided into several stages; Stage I, II, III, IV. Stage I is the earliest form which consists mainly of hasty search, evaluations, and damage assessment. This is similar to the START triage step where the walking wounded and the easy to treat or rescue subjects are removed. Stage I could consist of minor rubble removal, simple accessible room evacuations. Stage I would also include verbal attempts and investigative attempts to note the possibility of trapped subjects in structures. Each structure that is searched is marked even at the stage I level  to indicate its status. Stage II searching includes detailed external hailing, and building entry searches where there is a high probability of locating subjects. This may include lifting or moving heavy objects, shoring, and other heavy rescue skills. Stage III begins when major structures such as walls, roofs, and flooring are separated using heavy equipment or large scale manpower. Stage IV is technical demolition in which the structure is completely broken down to rubble and the contents are investigated using skip loaders or other appropriate heavy equipment. The time line and the transition from stage to stage will largely be dependent on the type of damage, the likelihood or danger of subsequent collapse, the probability of live trapped subjects, and the existence of any health or safety hazards being caused by the structure or it's contents.  

Authorization to enter any structure at the stage I scene is based on the Operation Leader or senior member present. In many cases searchers will instigate stage 1 searches in their area out of shear necessity. One must always try to install organization and always weigh the dangers that exist. "Is it safe for me?" is the standard question. This must be weighed and answered in the judgement of each person responding. The training provided in this manual and in team training hopefully will provide proper criteria to evaluate a scene for safety. In stage II searches several organized agencies or team members will be organized in at least ad hoc form. In this case there should exist communication with a central control point (ie dispatch, command post, sworn deputy, etc). After giving as assessment of the scene to the controlling authority, permission should be sought to enter or start Stage II searches. In this case the logistic section can track assets and begin the organization that is required. As time progresses and search stages mature, local building and safety agencies begin to play a higher role in authorizing access to structures or areas. It is quite typical for building authorities to "tag" buildings with the type of access that should be allowed. Stage IV operations are normally relegated to construction crews that are specifically trained and practiced in large scale construction. During Stage I searches, the member is called upon to make a clear and concise decision. It may be necessary to coordinate volunteers in this effort. As time progresses the chain of command should take effect. Allow those agencies that are trained in structure assessment to make decisions. (Often agencies are reluctant to make expedient decisions considering the liability that is involved). In any case use the best trained and knowledgeable to assess the situation and always consider "Is it safe for us to continue?"  

Reasons to enter a structure are similar to triage considerations. The attempt is to provide the most amount of good for the maximum number of people. Overhanging and loose external brick make a collapsed brick building dangerous on the outside. Torque forces can eject building bricks hundreds of feet. Typically one should attempt to maintain a safety distance of twice the building height when not entering the structure. Obviously in an area with many destroyed or collapsed structures exist, this will be impossible. Buildings should be entered only if the possibility of life is considered to be probable. Internal damage assessment or personal goods should be left for a later date. Entry should be made only if proper safe shoring and considerations are made including an evacuation plan and a limited stay time. Building search patterns should be followed to make the search as short as possible.  

Basic personal gear should include:  

  • Radio with extra batteries

  • Helmet with headlamp

  • Goggles

  • Nuisance mask (extras in a pocket are helpful)

  • leather (and latex) gloves

  • Ear plugs

  • Flashlight with a belt loop

  • Extra small flashlight (3rd source of light)

  • Sit Harness in place

  • 2 Biners and 2 webbing runners

A small fanny pack could also be ready with basic survival and first aid gear. It may be prudent to add some food stuffs and a gauze roll in a pocket in the event one is separated from his gear. Alternate personal gear could also include coveralls and knee pads.  

A Safety Officer should be established as soon as is possible. The safety officer would remain outside a structure noting times, or existing hazards. An agreed upon evacuation signal will be sent if the safety officer feels there is a need. Typically repeated signals of "Three" indicate and evacuation order. A safe meeting zone outside a structure should be decided prior to entrance into the structure.

Stage I Structure Searches

In early searches one is trying to evacuate all easily evacuated subjects and note the presence of anyone known to be trapped within a structure. An external survey of the structure from all sides should be made prior to entering any structure. The condition of supporting walls, the roof, the roof attachment, and any facades must be noted. Hailing teams as is shown in figure 1 may be used to audibly locate conscious trapped subjects. The time of the disaster may indicate the location of possible subjects. Occurrences in the middle of the night may indicate that most subjects are in bedrooms.  

Dogs that are specifically trained to find anyone and are familiar with building searches may be extremely helpful. However these dogs will take time to be located and transported to the scene.  

Once a building is entered or surveyed it should be marked in accordance with figure 2.  Any existing warning placards should also be noted. This symbol notes the number of known people trapped (alive or deceased), any hazards that exist, and the agency that searched the building, and an indication if searchers are inside the structure or not. This symbol is very universal but different agencies may use slightly different symbols. The symbol should be placed on the entry area of the structure in plain sight. The marking should be made with paint. The utility vehicle and the USAR trailer each carry several cans of orange spray paint that may be used for marking. Chalk or sections of plaster board may be used to draw improvised symbols. On some surfaces, large "Magic Markers" may be appropriate.  


USAR Continued


Ventura County Sheriff's Volunteer Search & Rescue  |  Fillmore Mountain Rescue  |  Team 1
Mailing Address:  P.O. Box 296 |  Fillmore, CA  93016
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2005 Ventura County Sheriff's Volunteer Search & Rescue, Fillmore Mountain Rescue, Team 1

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site updated by Fillmore SAR Member Jude Egold