It takes specialized skills and a good dose of bravery to enter collapsed buildings. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a cadre of these modern heroes: 30 rescue-trained structural engineers who deploy around the world just hours after a natural or man-made disaster to ensure safe passage for disaster survivors and first responders.
Engineers from multiple Divisions, Districts, Laboratories and Headquarters comprise three Urban Search and Rescue Program Strike Teams within the Structures Specialists Cadre, each maintaining on-call readiness to assess, help stabilize and monitor damaged structures at collapse scenes. They recommend actions to minimize risks to search and rescue personnel and use sophisticated equipment and honed, practiced observation skills to shore up and monitor structures.
"Our cadre trains so they can work quickly and efficiently to enable rescuers' safe entry and assure mobility around a disaster site," explains Tom Niedernhofer, P.E., the Corps' Urban Search and Rescue Program Manager. "It's a job critical to moving forward during a lifesaving disaster response mission."
The threats posed to responders and survivors from structural collapses after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake were the "wakeup calls" that launched the federal governments' National US&R Response System and, in turn, the Corps' US&R Program.
The lessons learned by U.S. assistance teams set the foundation for dozens of missions: Within hours of the 1995 Oklahoma City federal center bombing, Corps Structures Specialists arrived on scene. A Strike Team arrived in Haiti within days of the devastating earthquake in 2010. Some missions provide straight-up technical engineering support: A team sent to Christchurch, New Zealand after the earthquake in 2011 first recommended methods to stabilize high-rise buildings and, where needed, recommended demolition techniques.
Stateside, cadre members provided heavy infrastructure assessments for Vicksburg District after Hurricane Katrina. Supporting their readiness, specialized equipment caches are stored in the eastern, central and western regions of the United States for rapid deployment to a Strike Teams' response operations.
"For many nations around the world, this program fills a gap in response efforts with deployable, technical expertise and the ability to serve in demanding environments and across language and cultural differences," explains Colonel Eric McFadden, Deputy Commander at the South Pacific Division and a Senior Leader with oversight of the Corps' program that is managed out of SPD.
Niedernhofer adds that since most disasters don't differentiate between seasons or infer preferences for rescue-compatible weather conditions, specialists train for responses in extreme cold weather and stand ready to deploy to environments down to -50F.
The program's mission is about more than just boots-on-the-ground response. Structures Specialists provide expert consultations to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's US&R Task Force Leaders and their Incident Support Teams, military technical rescue organizations and Incident Command System leadership. The program leverages the Corps' niche technical and engineering capabilities, supports critical international and interagency partnerships, and, especially important to collaborative disaster response, integrates civilian-military capabilities.
"Integrating civil-military disaster preparedness and response, through planning, training, and all levels of coordination, deepens the Army's contributions to local, national and global disasters and builds the capacity and capability of Allies and partners," expounds McFadden.
A key program goal is advising local, state and federal agencies and nations' governments how to build their own rescue engineering capability. Training and mobilization exercises support this priority, from conference rooms and into the field, locally or internationally, in FEMA's 28 national US&R Task Forces and in countries including Uzbekistan, Armenia, Indonesia, Nepal and Bangladesh. Experts across the Corps, the Army and other agencies and countries collaborate on policies and standards for responding to structural collapse.
While the program is invaluable before, during and after a disaster, the Corps must expand the program's visibility to build support for sustained funding and ensure its role as part of the Army's global mission into the future.
"When we need the program--when our global partners need it--we must be resourced for the mentoring, the responses to unforeseen technical and engineering requests and the subject matter expertise only available through this cadre," McFadden explains.
"Parallel to this is the need to build and retain the skills and knowledge of the engineers themselves as the cadre's numbers are declining with retirements," adds Niedernhofer. "Participation in the cadre, with its training and readiness requirements, are a unique stretch of one's regular duties, with experiences not found in traditional engineering positions."
While all support requests come through the Corps, Strike Teams or specialized individuals can participate in responses managed independently of the Corps and deploy as part of Department of Defense or other State, regional or federal missions.
The Structures Specialist Cadre fills a gap in peace and secure times by training federal partners and nations to ensure their readiness. They stand as examples of the flexible, trained experts common in the Corps, ready to support a local town or an entire country following a disaster.