In the wake of a disaster, emergency response officials arrive on the scene to perform dangerous and risky rescue operations. Organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are commonly associated with disaster events but other entities help in these efforts as well; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is one such auxiliary agency.

Volunteers from across the Corps of Engineers enterprise belong to a cadre of Structures Specialists who provide technical expertise in the area of structural engineering. The deployment of Structures Specialists is imperative in disaster situations in which disaster victims may be trapped in collapsed buildings. Because of the tremendous risk to life and limb involved in post-disaster rescue operations, mitigating the potential for additional lives lost is one of the primary goals of the Corps of Engineers volunteers. The team works in concert with other disaster response organizations in a coordinated effort to save as many individuals as possible.

Recalling his deployment to Haiti in the aftermath of a major earthquake in 2010, Buffalo District Engineer Dustin Tellinghuisen remarked on what the mission meant to him:

"Being there to help reduce lives lost in the rescue effort is why I'm there. It's really important to ensure that rescuers can do their job safely and that is what we are there to help with," said Tellinghuisen.

Mr. Tellinghuisen was deployed to Port-au-Prince, Haiti and assisted rescuers locating victims in the Hotel Montana. The Corps of Engineers team worked closely with international rescue workers from countries such as France, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. While the Haiti deployment was a multi-agency operation, the Corps of Engineers Structural Specialists may also deploy as a standalone unit.

Becoming a Structures Specialist involves a rigorous training program. Volunteers are generally required to possess a Professional Engineer license to join the Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) team and the program involves hundreds of hours of online, classroom, and field training. The intense field training includes the analysis of collapsed buildings in life-size simulations. Volunteers must have about five years of structural engineering or relevant construction experience.

Another Buffalo District Engineer, Adam Hamm, has been a US&R volunteer since 2005. Mr. Hamm was intrigued by the hands-on experience the program provided and the challenges working in disaster sites might pose. Having been deployed for a Corps of Engineers mission before, he was no novice with respect to overseas challenges.

"When I was asked to deploy to Haiti, I was already on route to Iraq", said Hamm.
Mr. Hamm encourages new Corps of Engineers staff to join the program because it diversifies and hones an engineer's skills. While the commitment of time for training is extensive, deployments are typically two weeks in duration.

"If a disaster happens, you have to be ready to travel to the site within 6 hours. The work day is often 12 hours, seven days a week", said Tellinghuisen. "For the first 72 hours, you're on your own to find a place to sleep and secure transportation to the area. After that, FEMA coordinates where we stay and where we will be stationed."

"Being part of US&R means serving my country in a time of disaster by using my knowledge in structural engineering to help save lives," said Hamm.

Disasters are unpredictable but the Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District US&R volunteers are always ready to take on a mission at a moment's notice. The importance of these experts cannot be understated. Of the Corps of Engineers' approximately 30 US&R volunteers, five reside within the Buffalo District; the team is made up of Dustin Tellinghuisen, Adam Hamm, Shanon Chader, Michael Baker, and Robert Remmers. For more information on what's involved in becoming a Structures Specialist, visit DisasterEngineer.org.