Search and Rescue: A Firefighter's Ambivalent Take -- By Zac Unger Back   Home  
Sitting in the firehouse on Tuesday, watching the towers fall, we were all shaken by how powerless we felt. I needed desperately to go to work, and within an hour I got a phone call summoning me to Oakland's Urban Search and Rescue cache. USAR is a nationwide program overseen by FEMA and run by local fire departments. There are 28 teams around the country--27 now, as New York's team has been gutted. The goal of each USAR team is to be a completely self-sustainable rescue unit with special expertise in dealing with technical rescues, such as the ones required by earthquakes and building collapses. Within eight hours of call-up, each team is capable of bringing 62 rescuers and 60,000 pounds of gear to the nearest Air Force base, where it is all loaded onto immense transport planes and delivered to ground zero. Once onsite, the team has enough food, water, shelter, and power to work for 72 hours unsupported by any external infrastructure. Our team consists of heavy-rescue experts, dogs and their handlers, doctors, structural engineers, and technical search specialists. My position on the team is that of logistics specialist, which means that I am responsible for the exhausting details of moving and running our small city.

At the moment, there are eight USAR teams on the ground in New York and four more at the Pentagon. Originally it seemed that Oakland's team might be wheels-up in a military C-5 airplane within the day, but the powers-that-be at FEMA have decided not to send us for a week or more. USAR's most high-profile operation to date has been in Oklahoma City, with teams hard at work for almost three weeks. Rescue experts I've talked to say that the destruction in New York is 120 times larger than the rubble of the Murrah federal building. It now seems likely that every USAR team in the country will be rotated through New York several times over the coming months, and our first turn may not be until the end of September.

After five days of being buried, the chances of emerging alive from a collapsed structure are less than 7 percent. Nonetheless, the president has committed to continuing the rescue effort until every single person is accounted for. Rescue in these sorts of situations is inherently dangerous, and body recovery is no easier. With toxic dust swirling around a constantly shifting pile, my rescue specialists are going to be pushed to their limits.

In an earthquake or a bombing, the search team is the first to go to work. The structural engineers identify possible void spaces and assess the stability of the debris. The handlers follow their dogs' noses, and our technicians thread delicate camera and audio probes deep beneath the concrete in hopes of picking up faint signs of life. After finding a victim, the search team turns the effort over to the rescue team, the grit and muscle of our operation. The rescuers have an array of massive tools at their disposal--roto-hammers, concrete saws, 70-ton capacity lifting bags. In Oklahoma City, USAR members dangled on ropes midway down the concrete and steel skeleton, pressing their jackhammers into the massive widowmaker slab of concrete dangling from steel reinforcement bars and wire.

Even with the experiences of Oklahoma, the Northridge earthquake and dozens of other disasters behind us, the jobs at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center will be infinitely more complex than anything USAR, or anyone else, has ever contemplated. At what remains of the Towers my crew will build a web of pulleys and ropes allowing them to rappel down to the level of the job. We bring heavy pneumatic chisels and saws tipped with flakes of diamond capable of slicing through the tons of concrete. We also use giant rubber lifting bags, some as large as five square feet, which can be slipped into the tiny spaces between slabs of concrete. Amazingly, the rubber is more durable than the rubble and as the bags are slowly inflated they are capable of raising nearly 70 tons. Once one lift is completed, the new opening will be shored up with heavy timbers and the air bag reinserted deeper under the top slab to gain more height. In Oklahoma City, rescue workers were frustrated by miles of cable and wire that emerged after the walls were blown apart and that blocked access to the heavy mounds of debris. We know better now and have stocked hundreds of extra wire cutters to keep the effort from bogging down.

Though I feel guilty even giving voice to this, I am apprehensive about using rescuers for body recovery. The toll has already been so great--Chief Ray Downey, an early force behind the birth of USAR, died alongside his men last Tuesday morning--that the thought of putting any more firemen in harm's way sickens me. While there is still hope for survivors, I think we should throw every resource in the world at the devastation, but at some point reality may need to overcome compassion. I admire the sentiment that we should leave no American behind, but I refuse to leave behind any of my own friends in the service of a symbolic effort.

In the midst of this large-scale devastation, my days since the attack have been consumed by details. As a logistical specialist, preparing for our deployment has been a round-the-clock effort. I am consumed by questions: Is the country (the world?) already stripped bare of concrete-cutting blades? If we're still going to be there in December, where can I buy 1000 pairs of wool socks? Are our body-bags sturdy enough to be lowered by ropes? I recently test-ate a self-heating meal packet, and though I liked the taste, the portions were much too small. I don't want to think about the mutiny I'd face if I passed them out to my rescue guys after a twelve-hour shift on the pile. I'll buy three per person per meal, but I'm worried that doing so might cut into the money I need for acetylene torches and dogfood.

Shipping the cache is a nightmarish jigsaw puzzle involving boxing, palletizing, and tying down 17,000 pieces of equipment. And, state of emergency or not, I'm still responsible for filling out hundreds of shipping declarations and hazardous materials notifications for everything we carry. Helping another Bay Area USAR team get out the door the other night, I spent until 5 a.m. on the tarmac of an Air Force base haggling with a well-intentioned but strict loadmaster about the proper way to pack and label each item in the cache. All around us drab-gray planes were lifting off toward who-knows-what kind of military buildup, and I couldn't help but think that a half-dozen cans of orange spray paint weren't the most dangerous thing being shipped out just then.

Our team is primed and ready. We want nothing more than to go to New York, and when the call from FEMA comes in, as it most certainly will, we'll be out the door in minutes. Long after this has stopped being a fresh wound, USAR teams will still be chipping away at the pile, extricating the dead until nothing remains but concrete and steel. Until then, there is nothing to do but go back to the firehouse and try to do our job as if nothing had changed. Before Tuesday, I would jump up eagerly whenever the bell toned, confident that I could handle whatever emergency might come my way. Now though, I get a sick feeling when I pick up a call from dispatch, afraid I'll hear the words "airplane," "Bay Bridge," or "Federal Building."

Firemen die. It's a fact of our lives. But now we know that whole fire houses die too, that an entire department can suffer a mortal blow. I'm burning to go to New York, worried about the risks, but aching to deliver a fallen colleague into the hands of his loved ones. When I see firehouse flags at half-staff, I love my job more than I ever have, but I'm more frightened than I've ever been.
This article was published in MSN Slate. Author Zac Unger is a firefighter in Oakland, California.