Texas FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Exercise

March 11, 2016

By Brian Kassa, FirstNet Director of Technology Planning and Development and Mike Worrell, FirstNet Senior Fire Services Advisor

Recently, FirstNet observed a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Operational Readiness Exercise (ORE) at Fort Hood, Texas.  The purpose was to identify broadband data requirements during US&R deployments.

Texas Task Force 1 (TX-TF1) functions as one of the 28 federal teams under FEMA's National US&R Response System and as a statewide urban search and rescue team under the direction of the Texas Division of Emergency Management.  TX-TF1 also coordinates the state's swift water rescue program and the helicopter search and rescue team which works in conjunction with Texas Military Forces.  TX-TF1 has more than 600 members from 60 organizations throughout Texas.  Members consist of firefighters, doctors, nurses, structural engineers, canine handlers, professors, police officers, and many other professionals throughout different fields.

The ORE scenario was a response to multiple tornadoes impacting a town and adjacent rural area with flooding.  An advanced team of 12-15 was inserted by helicopter to do an initial assessment and rapid triage of the structures to prepare for the arrival of the main team.  The main team of approximately 65 personnel with 80,000 lbs. of equipment deployed over the road and arrived 2 hours later.

Advance team  arriving

Advance Team arriving

Teams Gear Convoy arriving

Teams Gear Convoy arriving

Data is extremely important to US&R teams.  As in this exercise, they are often asked to inspect and clear hundreds of structures to identify any victims inside, to assess the structure’s integrity and, if the structure is unstable, to mark the structure properly to ensure that no one enters the structure.  The data requirements to track these activities can be considerable.  TX-TF1 has a manual process to collect and record data that involves handheld GPS receivers and written logs.  The processing of this data did not start until the end of each operational period. The Planning Unit would gather the paperwork, collect the GPS devices, and download the data from each one.  This process was time consuming and labor intensive, and it delayed production of the Incident Action Plan (IAP) for the next day.  Much of this work was done in the wee hours of the morning while the operations teams slept.

Running the paper and automated system together

Running the paper and automated system together

Using the automated system in the field 

Using the automated system in the field

TX-TF1 is somewhat unique in the US&R community because they have an automated system that they have been using and enhancing over the past several years that enables search teams to input their locations and data into a handheld device.  The solution is greatly enhanced if the teams have access to broadband connectivity so that the planning and operations sections are able to see, in real time, what the teams are doing.  The Communications Unit is currently able to provide a mesh broadband solution that reaches about two football fields.  Jeff Saunders, the TX-TF1 Program Manager, is looking for a solution that will reach out significantly further, especially “the last 100 yards”, to make their solution more effective where they really need it.

A view of the town from the perspective of the operations and planning sections
A view of the town from the perspective of the operations and planning sections

Oftentimes, when US&R is deployed, there is little to no infrastructure available, and the teams must be completely self-sufficient.  Frequently, the reason for their response may have destroyed or crippled any commercial broadband services available in the area.  For this ORE, the search teams were able to use commercial broadband data services to provide real time search data.  However, the responders expressed concern that they may not have reliable access to commercial networks during the types of incidents for which TX-TF1’s services are requested.

A view of the newest small town in Texas. The ORE base of operations, home to 100+ responders for the weekend
A view of the newest small town in Texas. The ORE base of operations, home to 100+ responders for the weekend

FirstNet has the potential to overcome many of these challenges by deploying a nationwide public safety broadband network built with survivable sites and deployable assets to extend coverage in areas impacted by infrastructure damage, those that had no coverage to begin with, or those with coverage issues due to difficult terrain.

TX TF-1 has deployed with this system numerous times and the use of broadband has made operations more efficient.  Broadband access allows the responders to use their own devices, collect real time data, and process the data for instantaneous viewing.  This approach provides the Incident Commander (IC) with a real-time common operating picture and critical situational awareness.  The availability of real time information gives the IC the data needed to adjust operations based on search team progress and creates a safer working environment for the responders.  It was interesting to see the diversity of tools being used to perform rescue operations. Tools as simple as a hammer and saw sitting next to a computer tablet create a striking picture that is representative of how TX TF-1 has embraced technology.

A make shift work table with the tools of a carpenter, and a tablet
A make shift work table with the tools of a carpenter, and a tablet

FirstNet would like to thank Texas Task Force 1, The Texas Division of Emergency Management, and The Texas A&M Forestry Service for allowing us to observe their exercise.  We would especially like to thank Gary Parker for allowing us to follow him around during the ORE.

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