Preparing for the Big One: Light Search & Rescue

CERT Light Search and Rescue Class 9/8/12

Lift and crib exercises

Lifting a concrete block to rescue a person pinned underneath

In normal times, the Berkeley Fire Department may be able to reach any location in the city inside of four minutes.  In a major quake on the Hayward Fault, the Department’s response time to any particular call may stretch to four days.  Or longer.  The CERT organization exists to fill that gap.

CERT is Community Emergency Response Team.  This consists of “ordinary” neighbors with training, organization and equipment to handle all but the heaviest damage in our community.  Experience has shown that neighborhoods that are organized, trained, and equipped are much more resilient in the face of emergencies than those which are not.

The City of Berkeley provides free CERT training classes; the schedule is here.  Earlier, I took the CERT fire class and the CERT radio class.  This morning I took the CERT Light Search and Rescue class, and these are my notes.

Search and Rescue (SR) is probably the first thing that CERT members will need to do immediately after the shaking stops.  All CERT work is teamwork, so SR is always done by teams of at least two.

SR consists basically of three stages:

(1)  Assess the situation
(2)  Make a plan
(3)  Take effective action

It should be understood that our assessment, plan, and action need to change continuously as the situation changes.

(1)  Assessing the situation involves a number of main elements:


What is the day and time?

If it’s business hours on a work day, many people are not at home.  If it’s at night, people are probably in bed.  Is there a neighborhood emergency roster so that a SR team knows which house has people with limited mobility?

What people resources are available to help?  

How many trained CERT members are present?  Are there neighbors with useful emergency skills (medical, construction, communication, etc.)?   What possibilities exist for transporting injured people to hospitals?  Are designated emergency shelters set up within range?

What tools are available?  

Ideally, SR teams will have boots, gloves, and helmets.  Lighting equipment such as headlamps or flashlights, tools such as chain saws, pry bars, wrenches, markers, and others may be necessary for effective SR work.

How heavy is the damage?  

If buildings are collapsed or off their foundations, or are on fire, or there is a smell of gas, or there are downed live power cables, then the situation is too dangerous for CERT, and the task is to report to the City’s Emergency Office (see CERT radio class notes), seal off the perimeter, try to isolate the damage, and move on.  Where structural damage is minor or moderate, CERT teams can consider entry under circumstances discussed below.

Documentation is essential

One member of each CERT SR team needs to take notes as the assessment and action proceeds.  Notes are essential for reporting the situation to others, preventing duplication of effort, helping people find one another, and sorting out possible liability issues afterwards.

(2)  Making a plan involves three main elements:  Safety, Priority, and Method.


Safety:  CERT members must put their own safety first.  We cannot be of any help to others if we are injured or dead.  We need to stay hydrated, to eat, take breaks, and rest so that we can work at peak mental and physical effectiveness.

Priority:  The prime directive is to achieve the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people.  As our assessment of the situation broadens, we have to make judgment calls about where we can be most effective in carrying out that aim.  As a general rule, the first priority is to save lives;  second, to preserve property; third, to preserve the environment.

Method:  Both the Search and the Rescue part of SR work require knowledge of effective methods, which must be built into the plan.  These methods are the main subject of the remainder of the class.

(3)  Using Effective Methods in Search and Rescue


A.  Search Methods.

Unless there is an obvious starting point, such as a building in flames, an assessment of neighborhood damage should proceed in a defined order — up and down each side of the street in a given block, or around the block clockwise or reverse, and this plan should be understood by everyone involved.

For each structure assessed, try to examine it from all sides.  Look at the sides and the back if possible before making any decisions.

Should you enter a structure to search the inside?  This depends on a risk/benefit analysis.  For example:

  • How serious is the visible damage to the structure?
  • Are there voices inside calling for help?
  • Are there babies or people with limited mobility known to be inside?
  • How stable is the situation?
  • Is there a smell of gas, or signs of downed power cables, or fire?
  • Are there vicious dogs barking inside?
  • How risky to the rescuers would it be to enter?

Marking.  If you decide to enter and search the premises, first make a visible mark on the outside wall of the building.  This is what markers (or spray paint, or chalk) are needed for. Place the mark on the wall next to the door knob (not on the door, not on the wall next to the hinge side of the door).  The mark should be visible from the street, if possible. At the top of your mark, write the date and time you went in.  To the left, write your team name, for example “SR1.”   When you leave, write your time out below your time in.  Indicate what part of the building you searched.  Also note what you found, for example, “2L(iving) sent to MLK school center, 1D(ead) inside, turned off gas & elec.”  If a more elaborate message is necessary, write it on paper and pin or tape it below your note.

 As you enter, speak in a loud voice, something like “This is neighborhood Search and Rescue team 1.  If you can hear my voice, come here!”  People who can walk, even if they have some injury, should be evacuated first.  Ask them if there is anyone else inside.

If you need to search a building for victims, do it in a methodical manner, floor by floor, going either clockwise or counterclockwise along the inner walls.  Be sure to check inside closets, under tables, in bathtubs, under beds, and other likely places where people may be found.

If you find people who are dead, leave them for now.  Never risk a life, yours or anyone else’s, for the sake of a person who is no longer alive.

If there is no smell of gas and the place looks habitable, don’t turn off the gas.  (Amateur efforts to turn it on again probably present a greater danger.)   If the electric power is on and there is no sign of an electrical fire or other electrical problem, leave the power on.


B.  Drag or Carry Methods

The blanket carry

People who are unconscious or who have injuries that disable them from walking should be dragged or carried out.

People can be dragged out by the shoulders, or by the feet (on flat surfaces), or can be rolled onto a blanket and dragged on the blanket.  This should not be done if head, neck or spinal injury is suspected.

Light and small people can be carried in your arms, like a bridegroom carries the bride in the movies.

Heavier people who can stand up can be carried using the back-strap carry.  The victim puts their arms on the rescuer’s shoulders.  The rescuer holds them by the wrist, bends forward, and lifts the victim up.  This requires a fairly strong rescuer.

Two rescuers can combine to carry a person.  One raises the victim to a sitting position, puts her arms under the victim’s arms and grabs the victim’s wrists across the victim’s chest.  The other rescuer grabs under the victim’s knees.  They lift together.  This is hard and takes practice.  It’s important for both rescuers to use correct lifting technique:  lift with the legs, back straight up; never stoop over the weight and lift with the back.

A much easier two-person carry involves a chair.  Have the victim sit in a chair, preferably a chair with arms.  Make sure the chair is not broken.  One rescuer tilts the chair back and lifts by the back of the chair, the other lifts the front chair legs.

Where there are about six rescuers, you can use the blanket carry.  Roll the person onto a side.  Curl up about half a blanket close to them on the floor.  Roll the person on their back onto the blanket.  Uncurl the blanket underneath them.  Roll up the side edges of the blanket to make a grip.  On the count of three, lift up together.

The blanket carry can be used if neck or head injury is suspected.  Have one rescuer stabilize the head as the victim is rolled and lifted.

If spinal injury is suspected, the victim should be carried on a board, a table, a door, or other flat surface.

C.  Rescuing People Pinned

Living people who are pinned under heavy objects can often be rescued by methods that lift the object.  Sometimes this is a simple matter, such as lifting a bookshelf.  (Be sure to use correct lifting technique:  lift with the legs, back straight.)  Three or four people lifting together may be able to lift a car off a victim.  If the person is pinned by a tree branch or other wooden object, a chain saw may be useful to free them.

Where the object is hard and heavy, other tools are needed.  A handy and widely available tool is the car jack.  It may need to be braced or supported, depending on circumstances.  Fire trucks carry pry bars, heavy steel bars that are used as levers.  In the yard behind the training classroom, we practiced lifting and supporting (“cribbing”) a heavy concrete block using a pry bar and wooden 4×4 blocks and wedges.  In the neighborhood we probably would not have such equipment but would apply the same principle of leverage by improvising with whatever materials were available.

Practicing rescue technique

D.  Communication

Marking the doorway on entry and exit is part of documenting and communicating our SR work.  The marks will let the next CERT team or the professional emergency personnel know quickly what the status of the site was at the time we searched.  Besides marking, SR work involves constant communication of findings and efforts to the neighborhood communications center (see radio class).  It’s the communication that knits the rescue effort into a coherent network and pulls together the neighborhood’s recovery resources, and thus the neighborhood.


A Commentary on the Class Materials

These are my class notes, not the official PowerPoint.  You can read the official version here.  Maybe you will like the PowerPoint better.  In my personal opinion, the PowerPoint is poorly organized, repetitive, filled with meaningless generalities, and inappropriately convoluted for use in emergency situations.  (Who is going to remember the Nine Points of Assessment in a real emergency?)  Our trainers in the class — firefighters Scott Hall and Dori Tieu — did the best they could with it, but the most instructive and memorable moments of the class occurred when our teachers ignored the PowerPoint and told their experiences and anecdotes.  The other two CERT PowerPoints I have looked at suffered from similar defects, but the S&R unit is in particularly urgent need of a thorough rewrite.



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