As the one-month anniversary of Haiti’s earthquake passes, one inspiring memory of the rescue effort stands out: after a Los Angeles search and rescue team pulled another survivor from the rubble, bystanders in Port-au-Prince chanted, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” President Obama recounted the scene in his State of the Union address, and now policymakers should make sure that such successes can be repeated, more frequently, in future disasters by expanding our urban search and rescue capacity.
Consider what we were able to do in Haiti. The heroic work of just six American teams there — a small fraction of the 43 international search and rescue teams deployed — was responsible for a third of the lives saved.
At home, urban search and rescue teams — consisting of firefighters, police officers, medical workers, engineers, technical specialists and K-9 units — are ready to respond to disasters from earthquakes to acts of terrorism. Abroad, they could be used more aggressively to help during disasters and thus improve America’s reputation. Polls conducted in Pakistan and Indonesia after American disaster assistance reveal huge upswings in the perception of the United States.
This would require that we establish more federal urban search and rescue teams. The Federal Emergency Management Agency oversees 28 teams that can deploy at home with six hours’ notice, two of which regularly work with the United States Agency for International Development. But 28 is not enough. A team can spend the better part of a day rescuing a single survivor. Consider that, after 9/11, all but three FEMA teams were called to either the World Trade Center site or the Pentagon. And in Haiti, the 43 international teams on the ground were 15 more than in the entire FEMA arsenal. In a crisis, the number of teams, and the speed with which they deploy, can determine how many people survive. Large-scale responses require teams coordinated by the federal government.
Adding teams is cost-effective, because they consist of people who train for search and rescue part time. A team can operate for as little as $1.7 million a year, and many existing state and local teams could be brought into FEMA’s fold.
As we reflect on the suffering endured in Port-au-Prince, it is easy to see the wisdom of paying a little more for greater safety here at home, and for the ability to extend one of America’s most effective forms of benevolence around the world.
Matt Klapper, a student at Yale Law School and a volunteer firefighter and James J. Riley, the leader of New Jersey’s urban search and rescue team.