SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A disaster strikes, buildings crumble and as search and rescue workers dig into the debris, special volunteer rescue engineers are there beside the first responders to help prevent rescuers from also becoming victims.
A rescue engineer, also called a structures specialist, on one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency National Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces requires a special blend of skills and a mindset that combines structural science with a rescuer’s dedication to act decisively and save lives.
“The average engineer has a science-driven mindset that is perfect for their day-to-day tasks,” said Tom Niedernhofer,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers urban search and rescue program manager since 2002. “But we put them in a disaster environment, potentially exposing them to scenes of death, hardship and hazards that are usually experienced only by firefighters, police and other first responders.
“When you’re presented a problem in the day-to-day engineering world, in the relative calm of your office, you have enough time for several assessments before you make a decision,” said Niedernhofer. “Being decisive amid death and chaos … it’s not for everybody.”
The Corps is responsible for training all structures specialists for FEMA’s National Urban Search and Rescue response system. The Corps augments this system with a select cadre of structures specialists under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Urban Search and Rescue Program, managed by the Corps' South Pacific Division. Six of these specialists belong to the Corps’ Sacramento District.
Once trained and equipped, these rescue engineers are poised to respond to natural or manmade disasters anywhere across the nation through the Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Framework or in support of military humanitarian missions -- within six hours’ notice.
The primary mission for structures specialists is to quickly assess damaged structures, mitigate hazards and recommend temporary shoring. This defends against further structural collapse and potential loss of life during rescue operations.
“Firefighters and other rescuers have to have confidence in the rescue engineers,” said Niedernhofer. “When you establish that faith and trust between these two players, disaster operations proceed much better.”
To become an accredited rescue engineer requires a minimum of 120 hours of training, a host of medical assessments and the acquisition of specialized gear and equipment, said Niedernhofer.
“I became interested in this after coming out from St. Louis in 1989 to help with the Corps’ efforts towards damaged building assessments following the Loma Prieta earthquake (in San Francisco),” said Niedernhofer. He maintained that initial interest and was in the first official graduating class of structures specialists in 1992.
“After two solid weeks of training, I thought they would never call me,” he said. Then came Hurricane Andrew, the Northridge quake, the Oklahoma City bombing and the World Trade Center response.
“The very best structures specialists require moderate physical strength and agility, a solid understanding of building structures and load paths and possess a Type-A-driven personality,” said Niedernhofer. “They can benefit from other skills ranging from a second language, welding, fabrication, carpentry or advanced engineering specialties.”
If legendary super spy James Bond were a structural engineer -- he might be a good candidate.