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FEMA US&R Task Force Deployment 9/11:Lessons Learned

Author: Nancy J. Rigg

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Jan/Feb 2002 issue.

The numbers have changed daily since September 11th, when those three hijacked airplanes crashed their human cargo into the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.  The latest figures show that 3,019 people perished in New York City, including 343 New York City firefighters (FDNY), 23 police officers from NYPD, and 37 Port Authority officers.  The remains of only 119 FDNY personnel and a dozen NYPD and Port Authority officers have been recovered and identified thus far.

More people lost their lives in the attack on the Pentagon than in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and yet this incident has been overshadowed by the vast tragedy in New York City.  A total of 189 people died, including 125 people on the ground and all 64 passengers on American Airlines Flight 77.  Five alleged terrorists were among those who perished, leaving a total of  "184 innocent victims," according to Maj. James Cassella, defense spokesperson at the Pentagon.

The fourth hijacked jet also plummeted from the sky over Pennsylvania, its final destination uncertain, killing all 37 people on board.

New York, NY, October 4, 2001: An aerial view of the recovery operation underway in lower Manhattan at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center.  - Andrea Booher/ FEMA News

The numbers are numbing: 3,245 people from more than 80 countries around the world died on September 11th, another five victims died after being exposed to the deadly anthrax bacterium from an unknown source spread through the mail, and two widows committed suicide within three months of the deaths of their husbands in the terrorist attacks.  Tragedy compounded by tragedy.

Against the backdrop of so much sorrow and loss, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has quietly and steadily served communities nationwide that have been impacted by America's new war on terrorism.  26 of the 28 Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Task Force teams that are members of FEMA's National Urban Search & Rescue Response System served in New York City and Arlington, Virginia, during the first month following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, helping with search and rescue operations and to recover the remains of some of the thousands who died.

Perhaps because the events of 9-11 have represented the greatest challenge to date for the FEMA US&R Task Force teams, after-action reports are still being evaluated and written.  But from a strictly US&R perspective, some lessons are already emerging.


Supporting Local Jurisdictions

Major disasters may have national and international repercussions, but they are always local events, unfolding in specific fire-rescue and law enforcement jurisdictions.  When local emergency managers and fire-rescue commanders call for additional, outside resources, it is understood that "control" of the incident still rests within the local jurisdiction.  This is both appropriate and a potential breeding ground for problems if the locals aren't as familiar as they may need to be with how to best employ special resources like the FEMA US&R Task Force teams, or the outside teams arrive on scene with the appearance of supplanting, not supporting, local rescue operations. 

When American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, the Arlington County Fire Department immediately took the lead on firefighting, EMS, and search and rescue operations, with assistance from several military, law enforcement, and mutual aid fire-rescue agencies, including the Fairfax County Fire Department, which sponsors Virginia US&R Task Force 1 (VA-TF1), and the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, which sponsors Maryland US&R Task Force 1 (MD-TF1).  Arlington County Fire Chief Edward Plaugher and his command staff have been credited for their management of the response to the Pentagon attack, including their savvy use of the FEMA US&R Task Force Teams. 

"If you can say anything 'good' about a horrific event such as this," said Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Assistant Chief Tom Carr, who is a task force leader for MD-TF1, "the response to the attack at the Pentagon was extremely well run.  FEMA did a wonderful job in quickly deploying VA-TF1 and us.  We've done urban search and rescue training with the military over the years.  They have a rescue team, which did some great work.  And Arlington County was right on target."  Carr stressed that Arlington County "set the tone" for the response, ensuring that everyone worked from the same page, employing standard incident command procedures and allowing the FEMA US&R teams to be fully utilized.  "This response went about as smoothly as it could have gone," Carr said.

"Arlington worked very well," said Dave Webb, Acting Chief of FEMA's Urban Search and Rescue Unit.  "They were familiar with the players on the task forces that arrived first.  And despite the tragic loss of life, the scope of the incident was manageable.  Because it was the headquarters for the military, security went up quickly and solidly, the perimeter was established early, and control was gained as soon as possible." 

In contrast, the situation in New York City was "many times more complex," Webb said.  "The size of the incident, which was something like 15 acres, involving the two main towers at the World Trade Center, the 47-story building that housed New York City's Office of Emergency Management, and the huge loss of life among the folks who would have been managing this incident, made it very difficult."

New York's US&R Task Force Team (NY-TF1) was "devastated," Webb said.  More than a dozen members of NYPD's Emergency Services Unit died.  And not only was Fire Chief Peter Ganci killed, but members of his top command staff, including Special Operations Chief Ray Downey and 80% of the FDNY members of NY-TF1 task force also perished.  "We were working with folks who were worried about their friends and trying to locate the people who came from their stations, so that was one component," Webb said.  "FDNY promoted 168 fire department folks in the field, so trying to piece together a management organization that could maintain control of the situation was a challenge.  We were there to support them in that effort."

Webb stressed that the loss of so many rescuers was "personal for us, too.  One of our task forces was at the bottom of that rubble pile.  We knew these guys.  We had worked with them and many were good friends.  We were there to help the city and we wanted to play that role.  The federal response is there to support the local incident commander and we hope that this is how we came across."

For many US&R Task Force members who served in New York, the balance of lending support without interfering with local command decisions became a source of some frustration, primarily because, despite its vast size, the WTC collapse zone was never really broken down, US&R style, into workable sections where US&R team members could utilize their unique training and equipment to its highest level of performance.  "FEMA was able to effectively deploy the US&R teams and get infrastructure into place, so from the federal perspective it was a successful operation," said Virginia Beach Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Chase Sargent, who serves as a task force leader for VA-TF1 and operations chief on the FEMA Incident Support Team (IST), "but strategically and tactically, the US&R teams were not used the way they were designed to be used."

No one wants to sound critical of New York, Sargent stressed, adding that any jurisdiction facing the level of physical devastation in the collapse zone, compounded by personal loss, would have been hard pressed to manage a disaster like this as well as New York did.  But for future responses, where the unique lifesaving capability offered by the US&R operational package is greatly needed, a better way of quickly integrating the FEMA US&R teams into the local command structure may need to be found.  "No one has ever seen a collapse of this magnitude," Sargent added quietly, "but there are certain, effective ways to approach any collapse, regardless of the size."

Personnel from Massachusetts Task Force-1 at work on the pile.  Search efforts had to be coordinated with other task force teams, local FDNY firefighters, who understandably took considerable ownership over the search and recovery efforts, and construction workers, whose cranes and equipment posed additional hazards.  Photo via MA TF1

Recurrent Lessons

There are a number of issues, from communications to logistics, which always pose a challenge when deploying FEMA US&R Task Force teams nationwide.  For Tim Gallagher, Director of Texas Task Force 1 (TX-TF1), some of the more basic issues like personal protection and decontamination may not have been managed as well as they could have been.  "We didn't do as good a job as we should have enforcing the use of respiratory protection or managing decontamination," he said.  "Many of our people got sick after we got back from New York, including me.  They're calling it the 'World Trade Center cough', and lots of people have it."  Although half-face air purifying respirators (APRs) were recommended, Gallagher said: "We didn't enforce this enough.  We'd see guys out there with their APRs hanging around their necks.  So one lesson learned is if we decide you need respiratory protection, you need it all the time when you're in the hot zone."

Because the majority of responders, from the FEMA teams to the locals, did not do enough to manage decontamination in a thorough and systematic way, dust, mud, and contaminants from the WTC made a trail from the collapse zone to the Base of Operations (BoO) where the FEMA teams were housed, as well as to fire and police stations, offices and homes throughout New York City.  "We misfired badly on decontamination," Tim Gallagher said.  "For future operations this is something that the first teams in need to sort out, because it doesn't do much good to try to set up decon after other teams have been traipsing back and forth from the collapse zone to the BoO for seven days before your team gets rotated in."

At the Pentagon and in New York City, communications was a challenge, as it usually is in major disasters.  "All the FEMA US&R communications specialists worked together to set up the comm system in New York," said Los Angeles City (LAFD) firefighter Stan Horst, who serves as a communications specialist for CA-TF1.  "One of the biggest lessons learned was the need to train, train, train.  You need to get out the equipment, take it around and work with it under a variety of conditions.  In a real situation, you have to be flexible and have enough choices to find a solution if something doesn't work."

"You need to have a variety of tools in your toolbox so that you don't have to rely on just one thing for communications," LAFD Capt. Kevin Nida added.  "Experience helps.  There aren't many people that do what we do or understand what we do.  It's not the kind of thing that you can pick up quickly.  It takes a lot of years worth of experience."  Nida stressed that if US&R team members can't communicate, "they are not going to be effective.  I don't care how much rescue equipment they have, if they can't call for additional supplies or talk to the people in the hole doing the actual rescue work, it's not going to work."

Family support and critical incident stress management (CISM) are other key issues when US&R Task Force team members are deployed for up to ten days at a time, according to Assistant Chief Tom Carr.  "Emotional health is very important," he said.  "We learned this from Oklahoma City and we have a significant system to deal with this.  We talked about things with each other and made sure no one was standing around glassy eyed or off somewhere by themselves in a corner.  Eleven of the 70 people on our team are CISM peer counselors."  Pausing to reflect, Carr quietly added, "Our emphasis on protecting the emotional health of all our team members paid off big time on this incident."

Hand in hand with CISM is a "very sophisticated family support system," which Carr is proud to acknowledge that his wife, Anne Carr, has been instrumental in developing, refining, and maintaining.  "When you have an incident where 70 people run off to a crisis involvement," he said, "at home there are 70 families trying to maintain normalcy while they're worried about their loved ones, so it's critical that we support the families."  Although his wife was invited to speak to a meeting of FEMA Task Force leaders more than two years ago, "there is still no official program for family support at FEMA," Carr said.  "This needs to be institutionalized so that the task forces don't have a choice.  It shouldn't be hit and miss.  If you neglect the families, it has a negative impact on the whole team."


New Challenges

Because the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center were acts of war, there was tremendous concern about possible complication posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  Chief Carr was relieved that the terrorists who crashed a plane into the Pentagon had not added anything more noxious to the mix than fully loaded tanks of jet fuel.  "There needs to be a better way to handle WMD detection quickly," he said.  "We don't have the tools to instantaneously detect.  The best defense right now is to treat these incidents like HazMat, being aware and alert, but it's tough.  These are challenges that have been neglected for years and we've got to catch up fast.  You don't send military units in without the proper training and equipment, and we don't want our folks operating in the new WMD environment without better preparedness."

Risk management is another area of increased concern to Carr.  "After losing so many fire, EMS, and law enforcement personnel in New York, we are going to have to take our model of response apart and put it back together again," he said.  "At the Pentagon and in New York, everyone did what they are trained to do.  They knew that there were victims needing to be rescued.  They were not going to stand on the shore while there were people in danger.  We always have to manage the risk the best we can, and none of the models we had gave us an expectation that both of those buildings in New York were going to fall down.  I'm not sure what we're going to come up with, but the right thing to do is take apart the model piece by piece and either affirm the existing model, or come up with something else.  To leave any stone unturned is not the right answer now."

For Dave Webb, the deployment of 26 of the 28 FEMA US&R teams in the aftermath of 9-11 was a testament to more than a decade of steady work building an effective response system.  "We have a system that does work," he said.  "In spite of a lot of challenges, including the lack of availability of commercial aircraft, using ad hoc teams, because we couldn't get the usual people together due to transportation issues, all our preparedness came together and paid off.  Overall, the system as it was designed and implemented functioned pretty well." 

Nancy J. Rigg is a writer, filmmaker, and consultant with an extensive background in swiftwater rescue, public safety education, and disaster preparedness.  She is a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.



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