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).
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.
This need for new and improved technologies has been recognized with both the private sector and military exploring technologies that might assist US&R missions. The most popular area of research is robotics, with the field promising not only improved capability, but also reduced risk to rescuers. The U.S. DHS Science and Technology Directorate has initiated an effort with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop comprehensive standards in the development, testing and certification of US&R robotics. This promises to accelerate the process, but while there are many promising avenues of research, effective, real-world robotic solutions are still some way off.
Much time, expense and effort are being put into the development of a completely automated technological solution, and while it is the ultimate goal, there are devices emerging right now that could potentially revolutionize the way US&R is carried out.
A summary of the highest-priority needs cited by US&R personnel participating in a FEMA/DHS report concluded that new technologies are essential if tactics are to improve and evolve. The report seems to acknowledge that “improved real-time data access; the ability to accurately and noninvasively locate survivors following structural collapse; and the development of real-time, portable, multifunction devices that expand on existing detection capabilities” lag far behind the recovery and stabilization of victims. But this is changing with systems being engineered to assist in the difficult task of locating trapped survivors, be they visually obscured in a pile of rubble or partially collapsed building, uncommunicative and undetectable by dogs.
A promising avenue of research is in cellular tracking. Originally developed as an anti-terror and security solution, cell tracking usually works by triangulating the location of a device transmitting wireless signals such as a cellphone, tablet or computer. With statistics showing that nearly every person in an urban environment carries one or more of these devices, the capability to accurately locate and track these could prove invaluable when searching for survivors in a disaster zone.
The possibility of a central map containing the probable position of survivors, in addition to the actual location and movements of search and rescue operators, is a tantalizing one for commanders on the ground. Such a solution would not replace any existing equipment or search techniques, but rather could be used to improve both the locating of victims and the tactical overview available.
US&R officials are beginning to recognize the vital and increasing role more sophisticated technology is going to play in emergency situations. In the future, perhaps robots will be advanced enough to replace human rescuers entirely, but at the moment a more integrated and balanced approach is called for. Organizations that embrace emerging systems will maximize their capability, enabling them to give victims the best chance of survival.
Mark Stevens is a leading UK expert on security technology and managing director of DNA Tracker, which develops and provides mobile tracking applications related to crime reduction and public safety.