Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces: Facts and Issues
CRS Report for Congress
Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces:
Facts and Issues
Specialist, American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Since the early 1990s, Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Task Forces have been
certified, trained, and funded by the federal government. Twenty-eight task forces are
located in 19 states. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials may call out the
task force (or forces) in closest proximity to the disaster to help locate and extricate
victims from collapsed buildings and structures. The task forces represent a partnership
involving federal, local government, and private sector experts. Over $100 million in
federal funds have been provided in recent years to equip, train, and assist the task forces
that are considered to be part of the federal emergency response network. Two bills
(H.R. 88/S. 446) are pending before Congress to designate a New Jersey task force.
Legislation pending before Congress (S. 3721 and H.R. 5351) would establish statutory
authority and federal funding for a US&R response system. This report provides basic
information on the task forces, presents some issues that might be addressed by
Congress, and will be updated as circumstances warrant.
Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) task forces have been designated by the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to provide specialized assistance after buildings
or other structures collapse.1 The task forces work to stabilize damaged structures, locate
and extricate victims, identify risks of additional collapses, and meet other needs at
disaster sites. Each task force is comprised of at least 70 persons whose skills as unit
members include engineering, emergency medicine, canine handling, firefighting,
hazardous material handling, communications, logistics, and other areas.
Although the US&R task forces are local government entities, they may be
considered part of the federal emergency response network as they receive funding,
1 For background on US&R task forces see [http://www.fema.gov/emergency/usr/about.shtm],
visited Apr. 24, 2006.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
training, and accreditation from the federal government.2 Congress authorized emergency
search and rescue response activities in 1990 as part of an earthquake hazards reduction
program, and federal involvement in the urban search and rescue field has increased since
the establishment of the task forces in the 1990s. The successful deployment of task
forces after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the bombing of the Murrah federal building in
Oklahoma City in 1995, actions taken after Hurricane Katrina, and other disasters appears
to have established general support for the task force concept.
Genesis and Growth
The federal role in urban search and rescue efforts has developed slowly over the
past three decades. Its roots may be traced to congressional enactment of the Earthquake
Hazards Reduction Act of 1977 to stimulate research and planning related to preparation
for, and response to, the devastation of earthquakes.3 The statute recognized that federal
and non-federal entities, both public and private, must exercise responsibilities to reduce
losses and disruptions from earthquakes. The primary mandate given to the President in
the 1977 statute was to designate responsible agencies to establish and maintain “a
coordinated earthquake hazards reduction program,” one primarily oriented toward
earthquake prediction and mitigation.4 Objectives that were to be incorporated in the
program included “organizing emergency services” and educating the public and state and
local officials on “ways to reduce the adverse consequences of an earthquake.”5
Following establishment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
in 1979, Congress amended the 1977 statute to require FEMA to serve as lead agency for
the program.6 More recently, the 108th Congress transferred that authority to the National
Institute of Standards and Technology of the Department of Commerce.7 The most
significant program change relevant to the history of the US&R task forces was the 1980
requirement that the director of FEMA submit an “interagency coordination plan for
earthquake hazard mitigation and response” [emphasis added] to Congress.8 This
provision indicates that Congress, perhaps for the first time, authorized federal action and
responsibility for disaster response efforts traditionally considered the jurisdiction of state
and local governments.
As a consequence of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, Congress and FEMA
revisited the scope of NEHRP. FEMA established the National Urban Search and Rescue
Response System that same year. Also in the aftermath of that earthquake, Congress
enacted the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Reauthorization Act of
2 Information on the regulations pertinent to the operation of the task forces is available at 70 FR
3 91 Stat. 1098-1103.
4 91 Stat. 1099. The program was eventually designated the National Earthquake Hazards
Reduction Program (NEHRP).
5 91 Stat. 1100.
6 94 Stat. 2257.
7 Sec. 103, P.L. 108-360, 42 U.S.C. 7704(b)(1).
8 94 Stat. 2258.
1990.9 These amendments to the 1977 statute expanded the federal response authority to
include the following charge:
develop, and coordinate the execution of, federal interagency plans to respond to an
earthquake, with specific plans for each high-risk area which ensure the availability
of adequate emergency medical resources, search and rescue personnel and10
equipment, and emergency broadcast capability.
In 2004, the 108th Congress further amended the 1977 earthquake hazards act. The
amendment required that the Undersecretary of Homeland Security for Emergency
Preparedness and Response, who also serves as the director of FEMA, develop and
coordinate the National Response Plan and support state and local plans “to ensure the
availability of adequate emergency medical resources, search and rescue personnel and
equipment, and emergency broadcast capability.”11
The most recent pertinent development concerns the approval and publication of the
National Response Plan. Pursuant to congressional directive, the Department of
Homeland Security has issued the Plan to ensure that federal and non-federal entities12
coordinate their response to significant catastrophes.
Task Force Operations and Capabilities
After a disaster occurs that requires the assistance of US&R task forces, DHS
generally activates up to three task forces located closest to the disaster. Task forces must
be able to deploy all personnel and equipment within six hours of activation, and must be
able to sustain themselves for the first 72 hours of operations.
Each task force must include a wide range of emergency response capabilities, a
requirement that calls upon each task force member to complete a significant amount of
training, and must consist of a deployable roster of at least 70 fully trained individuals.
DHS has established a goal for each position on the task force to be staffed to ensure that
each position has at least two alternates in reserve. Task force members must hold the
following specialist skills: technical search, rescue, emergency medicine, structural
engineering, logistics, communications, canine search, and hazardous materials handling.
A task force must continue training and evaluation to maintain the accreditation status
received from DHS.
Members commonly work in 12-hour shifts. Task forces are supported by Incident
Support Teams (ISTs), which provide technical assistance to state and local emergency
managers, coordinate the activities of multiple task forces, and provide logistical support.
9 104 Stat. 3231-3243.
10 104 Stat. 3234, 42 U.S.C. 7704(b)(2)(A)(iv).
11 Section 103, P.L. 108-360, 42 U.S.C. 7704(b)(2).
12 Section 502(6), P.L. 107-296, 6 U.S.C. 312(6), required that the Undersecretary for Emergency
Preparedness and Response consolidate existing federal response plans into one uniform plan.
The National Response Plan, released on Jan. 6, 2005, is found at [http://www.dhs.gov/
interweb/assetlibrary/NRP_FullText.pdf], visited Apr. 24, 2006.
Task forces remain on-site until the Incident Commander determines that no victims
could possibly remain alive.
Comprehensive information on US&R funding is not readily available, although
some data have been published. Federal funding for the activities of the task forces in
responding to catastrophes is provided through the Disaster Relief Fund administered by
FEMA.13 In general, host employers of task force members (generally units of local
government) serve as the primary source of funds for the task forces. The federal
government provides funding for costs incurred when they are activated by FEMA.
According to one Member of Congress, at least in past years, “states provide little, if any,
Some historical information is available on funds Congress appropriates to ensure
that the supplies and capabilities of the task forces are maintained. In FY1998 and
FY1999 roughly $4 million in federal funding was provided to the teams.15 FY2001,
FEMA allocated approximately $6.4 million to the US&R program for training and
equipment, which was distributed to the task forces based on need. According to program
officials, state and local governments expected to pay 80% of the long-term costs
associated with sponsoring a US&R task force. In FY2001, FEMA also allocated $3
million for upgrading six task forces to weapons of mass destruction capability (WMD).
This new capability was meant to enable the task forces to search collapsed structures in
an environment with chemical, biological, or radiological contamination.16
Following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, US&R task forces received
federal funds to cover costs associated with responding to the World Trade Center and
Pentagon sites. Out of its discretionary funds in the emergency supplemental
appropriation (P.L. 107-38), the Administration allocated funds to the task forces.
Congress also allocated roughly $32.4 million to the US&R program in FY2002
supplemental appropriations (P.L. 107-206). For FY2003, Congress provided $60 million
for the 28 existing task forces. The conference report accompanying the appropriation bill
(P.L. 108-7) stated that the funds could be used for operational costs, equipment, and,
training. The report also emphasized readiness for operating in an environment
contaminated by a weapon of mass destruction.17 In similar fashion, Congress
13 For example, see U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justification of Estimates,
Fiscal Year 2002 (Washington: Apr. 2001), p. DR-13.
14 U.S. Congress, House Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and
Independent Agencies, Departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development,thnd
and Independent Agencies Appropriations for 1999, 105 Cong., 2 sess. (Washington: 1998),
15 Ibid., p. 48.
16 U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Office of Congressional Affairs, telephone
interview, Nov. 13, 2001.
17 U.S. Congress, Conference Committees, 2003, Making Further Continuing Appropriations for
the Fiscal Year 2003, and for Other Purposes, report to accompany H.J.Res. 2, H.Rept. 108-10,
appropriated another $60 million for the task forces in FY2004.18 President Bush did not
request funding in FY2005 for the task forces, but Congress appropriated $30 million for
the teams in the FY2005 appropriations legislation for homeland security.19
Twenty-eight task forces have been established throughout the United States, as
shown in the following map.
Source: Map taken from U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, http://www.fema.gov/usr/
usrtask.shtm, visited Apr. 21, 2004. (No longer available online as of Apr. 24, 2006.)
Members of Congress might elect to consider the following issues as they consider
the emergency response needs of communities, particularly in light of the response to
Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005.
18 P.L. 108-90, 117 Stat. 1147.
19 P.L. 108-334, 118 Stat. 1311.
!Additional task forces. Some Members of Congress, along with state and
local officials, contend that more task forces should be certified
throughout the nation. DHS officials, however, have expressed concern
that the establishment of more task forces would dilute the available
funding to train, equip, and manage the task force network. Members of
Congress may consider several options with regard to this issue: (1)
adopt language in the appropriations legislation for DHS that directs the
department to establish additional task forces, whether in specified states
or at the discretion of DHS officials; (2) consider legislation that
statutorily establishes US&R task forces, such as H.R. 88 and S. 446,
pending before the 109th Congress.
!Authorization. The US&R task forces have developed over time through
administrative actions taken by FEMA (now DHS) in response to the
general authority provided by Congress in the earthquake statute
discussed above. Since the role of the task forces has evolved, Members
of Congress might elect to consider legislation that specifies attributes of
the task forces, identifies requirements, and establishes permanent
funding accounts. Two bills before Congress, S. 3721 and H.R. 5351,
would authorize establishment of a US&R response system.
!Funding. Funding for US&R task forces, like other aspects of homeland
security, could be increased to ensure that sufficient equipment (and
reserves) are available to task forces. Congress might consider
legislation (such as S. 930, considered in the 108th Congress but not acted
upon) that would require the Secretary of DHS to provide grants to task
forces to ensure that operational, administrative, and training costs
continue to be met. Others may argue, however, that federal support and
involvement in task forces should be minimized, as the federal need for
US&R task forces occurs relatively infrequently, and task forces
primarily serve local government purposes.
!Redundancy. Congress may wish to debate how US&R task forces fit into
the broader scope of federal disaster response efforts. A report issued by the
General Accounting Office prior to the terrorist attacks of 2001 identified 24
types of teams, administered by eight federal agencies, capable of
responding to terrorist incidents involving weapons of mass destruction.20
The extent to which US&R task forces duplicate the capabilities and
authorities of other federal response teams might be considered.
!Oversight. The Secretary of Homeland Security has reestablished the
National Urban Search and Rescue Response System Advisory
Committee.21 Will the recommendations of the committee be made
available to Congress? If so, in what form and how frequently?
20 U.S. General Accounting Office, Combating Terrorism: Federal Response Teams Provide
Varied Capabilities; Opportunities Remain to Improve Coordination, GAO Report GAO-01-14
(Washington: Nov. 30, 2000).
21 71 FR 17898, April 7, 2006.