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Posted 8/1/2014

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By Samantha Heilig
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District


Two engineers from the Rock Island District belong to a unique team of engineers who stand ready to respond in the wake of natural disasters. Josh Cackley and Brant Jones, from the District's Engineering and Construction Division, are members of a specially trained U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Urban Search and Rescue program. This program was instituted to respond to structural engineering needs after disasters have struck.

On Sept. 19, 1985, Mexico City and surrounding areas were struck by a magnitude 8.1 earthquake followed by a magnitude 7.5 aftershock the following day. This series of earthquakes collapsed 412 buildings and severely damaged 3,124 others. It left more than 10,000 people dead, including 150 rescue workers who were not trained for this type of disaster. Four years later a magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake struck San Francisco, Calif., killing 63 people and injuring 3,757 more. This incident quickly made the U.S. aware of how unprepared it was to respond to such a disaster. As a result of these events, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was formally tasked by the U.S. Armed Forces Command in 1991 to develop a cadre of specially trained structural engineers for worldwide response.

Today, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Program deploys specially trained structural engineers to augment the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) US&R state task force teams, incident support teams and military technical rescue organizations during disaster response missions. Past major deployments include the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in 2001, and the Haiti earthquake in 2010.

Structures specialists (StS) like Cackley and Jones work as part of a 50-member cadre that provide technical support and advice to task force leaders and commanders to assess damage, mitigate hazards and assure mobility throughout a disaster site to enable rescue operations. They also serve in a similar capacity at the Rock Island Arsenal for emergency situations on the installation.

During a deployment, the teams can be working in hazardous conditions and damaged buildings on a regular basis.

"It is a dangerous job," said Cackley. "Training for these types of situations is necessary to make sure we are ready to go at any time."

Several different training levels, from basic to advanced, are available to the cadre members. Cackley recently attended the StS 2 advanced training level course which is recommended every five years for members of the US&R team. This five-day training course held at the NASA Ames Research Facility in Mountain View, Calif., was intended to simulate real-world deployment activities. It is a combination of classroom discussions, case studies, classroom and field exercises.

Being prepared is a major part of being on the US&R team.

"Once you are trained and ready for deployment you go on call every third month," Jones said.

The 50-member team is broken down into three groups: red, white, and blue which rotate on call status for disaster response.

"We maintain a rescue ready pack with needed supplies and equipment so that if the call comes in we can be ready to go in roughly six hours," said Jones.

A StS is responsible for many things during a disaster event. Safety comes first so the StS must first focus on providing task force personnel safety. This includes determining risk of collapse or injury to the rescue personnel and identifying entry and exit points for the damaged structures. The StS may also help identify locations for safe havens during aftershocks or further collapse. Rapid structure triage, a very quick assessment of the damaged buildings, is then used to determine risk of further collapse and where victims are likely to be located within the structure.

"It can be tough, working with people in very stressful situations with heightened emotions and running on adrenaline until you can’t go any longer," Cackley said. "Earthquakes are the most dangerous, as there is always the threat of aftershocks and the potential of further collapse."

Hazard mitigation is the last step in a disaster response. This process involves engineering solutions to eliminate or reduce the risk of injury to rescue personnel. Stabilizing buildings through the use of vertical and horizontal props called shoring, helps to prevent future collapse while cranes and other heavy equipment may be used to physically remove hazards from the scene.

"Many of the principles I use as a structural engineer apply whether I am designing a new structure or supporting a damaged one," said Cackley. "The biggest difference between working in the District office and working on the US&R team is that I have more time to think in the office than I will on the disaster scene."

The US&R teams carry a great amount of responsibility when assisting in these types of disaster situations. They must be trained in confined space entry, critical incident stress management, hazardous materials handling, water rescue, blood borne pathogens, respiratory protection, and CPR. Members must also receive a medical physical and seven different immunizations to remain eligible to deploy.

Although Cackley and Jones have not deployed since being accepted into the program, both said they are prepared and ready for response when the next earthquake, hurricane, tornado, flood or landslide occurs.