Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) in England and Wales have a statutory duty to respond to incidents involving collapsed structures and heavy transport incidents.
Article 3 of the Fire and Rescue Services (Emergencies) Order 2007 requires the FRS to make provision for rescuing people and protecting them from serious harm in the event of:
a An emergency involving the collapse of a building or other structure (not including a tunnel or mine) and
b An emergency involving a train, tram or aircraft which is likely to require a FRS to use its resources beyond the scope of its day to day operations (e.g. a serious transport incident).
Seventeen FRS in England have been provided with USAR assets and funding to support a team of thirty USAR personnel including a canine and handler. Sixteen of the FRS host one team and the seventeenth, London, host four teams, giving a capability of twenty teams. The teams are located to ensure an even geographical spread across the Country. A further USAR team is hosted in Wales, with Scotland and Northern Ireland having a similar capability.
The capability has been operationally available in its entirety since March 2008 and during that time has responded to over 1,100 incidents around the country.
Each USAR team consists of a minimum of thirty personnel (including a canine handler). A typical USAR response consists of ten technicians – one of which would be a designated team leader or officer in charge (OIC); as well as a search and rescue canine – trained to locate live casualties.
Each technician is trained in core USAR competencies which include technical search, scene and structural assessment, breaching and breaking, lifting and moving, working at height and confined space. In addition, individuals within each team have specialist skills which include chainsaw and hot cutting. Technicians are also trained in Line Access and Casualty Extrication (LACE), which enhances the capability while operating in confined spaces and working at height.
Fire Service Circular 08/2008 provides a concept of operations for USAR, detailing how the capability responds and is deployed to different levels or scale of incident. This ranges from remote advice to a full deployment of multiple teams to three simultaneous incidents. When a team responds they can mobilise with three prime mover vehicles which carry any one of five demountable modules which are provided to each team. The nature and scale of the incident will dictate which configuration of modules are mobilised. The USAR concept of operations provides structured criteria at national level to ensure that an adequate provision of all modules is provided by multiple USAR teams in the event of a national scale (level 4) incident.
Each of the five modules contains a range of equipment that would facilitate the successful undertaking of search and rescue operations and varies from structural assessment and technical search equipment (module 1); heavy transport, confined space and hot cutting (module 2) and heavy breaching and breaking equipment (module 3). A multi-purpose ‘bobcat’ vehicle is transported on module 4 which provides a safe system of work when unloading equipment from the other modules as well as providing a rubble clearance and fork lift capability; whilst module 5 contains approximately five tonnes of timber and nails that is utilised for shoring operations.
The responding teams of USAR technicians are supported at incidents by a Tactical Advisor (TacAd). These highly trained personnel can be utilised on a day to day basis, however, they also provide a vital role within the National Coordination and Advisory Framework (NCAF), which is in place for national level incidents. The TacAd has a specific role of liaising with the FRS incident commander and providing advice and guidance as to how and where a USAR team can be deployed. The TacAd also acts as a conduit for liaising with other agencies on scene. One such example involved a USAR TacAd working in conjunction with local authority building engineers and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in producing a detailed lifting plan which resulted in the successful removal of a crane jib that had collapsed on to an apartment block in Liverpool, UK.
Other high profile incidents, where USAR TacAds and the USAR capability has demonstrated its value, include a mine collapse at the Gleision Colliery in Wales which has resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) being produced between the Mines Rescue Service and the National USAR capability to ensure an integrated response to incidents of this nature; as well as the Atherstone-on-Stour incident in 2007 which tragically resulted in the deaths of four firefighters. The USAR capability is held in high regard across the rescue sector and similar MoUs are in place with the British Transport Police and the Police Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) teams.
CFOA provides operational assurance of the capability to the Government. This is achieved through the CFOA governance arrangements. The USAR capability sits within the strategic area of National Resilience which forms an element of the CFOA Operations Directorate.
The USAR National Working Group (NWG) is chaired by the CFOA USAR Capability Lead Officer. Each of the nine English regions is represented at the NWG along with representatives from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The NWG sets the strategic direction for the Capability and agrees a business plan each year which contains a number of actions to achieve the required strategic outcomes.
The National User Group (NUG) is chaired by the National Resilience Assurance Team (NRAT) Capability Officer for USAR. The NUG is the tactical delivery arm of the NWG and is attended by representatives of each USAR Team.
The USAR Training Sub Group supports and reports to the NUG in relation to all training related matters. Each USAR discipline has a technical lead appointed who works with the Training Sub Group to develop risk assessments, operational procedures and training packages.
The USAR Maintenance of Skills Framework has been developed by the Capability and is utilised by each Team to ensure that the required levels of competence are maintained. This is tested through an assurance process undertaken once every three years by the NRAT and through continual evaluation of incident and exercise outcomes.
To build on the skill acquisition courses and the maintenance of skills framework, there is a continuous professional development programme that is fully supported and implemented by teams within the regions. However, in October 2012 the capability took advantage of an outstanding opportunity to attend a Master class in the USA. Building on an existing relationship with the Charlotte Fire Department and the North Carolina Emergency Management Service; borne out of work over the last six years by the CFOA Water Rescue Group during tactical and strategic level water rescue classes; enabled the development of a program specifically designed for USAR technicians and TacAds. Consequently, a UK delegation was able to attend a programme of training in North Carolina. The delegates included USAR technicians from Merseyside, West Midlands, Buckinghamshire FRSs and London Fire Brigade; as well as TacAd and strategic managers representing the majority of the USAR asset hosting FRSs across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
• Operational logistics
• GPS and mapping
• National Incident Management System (NIMS)
• Trauma and casualty care
• Disaster management and planning
• USAR command management and leadershipIn addition, course delegates were required to deploy to a simulated devastated area, where they had to erect and manage a Base of Operations (BoO) as part of a three day field exercise. USAR assets were provided by the North Carolina USAR Task Force 3; with course input being delivered by highly knowledgeable and experienced officers from the Charlotte USAR Task Force, Fire Department of New York (FDNY), the FEMA registered USAR Task Force 2 in Florida, the Oklahoma Fire Department and the North Carolina Emergency Management Service.As mentioned earlier there have been a number of high profile incidents, since the inception of the USAR capability, including the London bombings in July 2007, where personnel from the USAR capability were deployed and contributed to the resolution of the incidents. However and fortunately, there have not been any national level incidents. Therefore to ensure and test the readiness of the capability there has been a number of large scale and challenging exercises. Exercise Orion was a large scale and unrehearsed exercise that took place in September 2010. The rationale was to test the European Union Civil Protection mechanism and mutual support to member states. The scenario was a large earthquake, which caused severe damage to infrastructure, widespread death and injury with numerous casualties trapped at locations across England, Liverpool being one such location. More recently in April 2013, three simultaneous large scale exercises were conducted. Exercise Roaring Lion in Merseyside, Madison in Lincolnshire and Endeavour in Tyne and Wear provided a robust test of the concept of operations, with the outcomes being fed into the evaluation process. Numerous other exercises have also taken place and many more are planned for the future that will see USAR continually tested and developed.
Dan Stephens is the Chief Fire Officer with Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, UK and is the Urban Search and Rescue capability lead officer for the Chief Fire Officers Association.
For more information, go to www.fireresilience.org.uk