Saving Our Own: Maximizing CBRN Urban Search and Rescue Capabilities to Support Civil Authorities

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Robert Wagner



The Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear (CBRN) Response Enterprise offers local and federal civil authorities its urban search and rescue (US&R) capabilities in the event a nuclear detonation traps victims in collapsed buildings.[1] These assets have two tiers of capability, search and extraction and search and rescue.[2] Located within Title 32 Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear and High-Yield Explosives Enhanced Response Force Packages and CBRN Task Forces, all search and extraction soldiers are trained to the operations level (level I) in structural collapse rescue.[3] Conversely, all search and rescue soldiers of the Title 10 Defense CBRN Response Force and Command and Control CBRN Response Elements are trained to the more in-depth technician level (level II).[4] Theoretically, this system allows state-level National Guard Bureau forces to augment the US&R efforts of local responders quickly after an event, with heavier-equipped and trained Title 10 forces arriving later to reinforce the operation.[5]

However, due to a lack of mutual understanding and enterprise synchronization, it remains unknown how the civil authorities in many major metropolitan areas and the federal government would employ enterprise US&R resources. Furthermore, it is unclear if these elements would be able to overcome the unique challenges presented to US&R efforts by post-nuclear detonation environments to deliver this support. Consequently, it is unknown how the Department of Defense (DOD) could maximize the employment of existing US&R capabilities to support civil authority-directed lifesaving operations after a nuclear detonation.


How can the DOD maximize the employment of existing CBRN Response Enterprise urban search and rescue capabilities to support civil authority-directed lifesaving efforts following a domestic nuclear detonation?

  • What are the expectations of civil authorities for the search and extraction and search and rescue elements of the CBRN Response Enterprise following a nuclear detonation?
  • How can the CBRN Response Enterprise overcome the challenges presented to urban search and rescue efforts by a post-nuclear detonation environment to meet those expectations?

Interviews were conducted to assess the needs of civil US&R agencies during a nuclear detonation response. Since the enterprise must collaborate with both local and federal civil authorities for such a response, interviewees were categorized into two groups, local civil authorities and federal civil authorities. Local civil authority interviewees were selected from major metropolitan areas, and they were special operations coordinators for fire departments charged with US&R responsibilities in these jurisdictions. Conversely, federal civil authority interviewees were selected from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National US&R Response System who hold the rank of task force leader or program manager.[6] In the event of a nuclear detonation, these leaders would have direct responsibility for coordinating tactically and operationally with CBRN Response Enterprise US&R assets, all while considering the strategic aims of the response efforts.

Additionally, the challenges presented to US&R operations by a post-nuclear detonation environment were examined, particularly within the context of DCSA and the CBRN Response Enterprise. The enterprise’s ability to overcome these challenges were analyzed and both strengths and shortcomings were identified. By taking this systematic, investigatory approach, recommendations were ascertained for maximizing the employment of existing CBRN Response Enterprise US&R capabilities to support civil authority-directed lifesaving operations following a domestic nuclear attack.


Civil response agencies have authority for coordinating domestic nuclear detonation response at both the federal and local levels of government, so it is imperative for the DOD to embrace its supportive role.[7] To this end, it must have a better understanding of the expectations of civil US&R authorities after such an event. Subsequently, the CBRN Response Enterprise must be tailored to meet these expressed needs. Doing so would allow the civil response agencies to become a force multiplier for civil US&R authorities, which would empower them to lead the effort to save lives after a domestic nuclear detonation.

For federal civil US&R authorities, force multiplication means providing capable manpower to sustain US&R efforts in a post-nuclear detonation environment based on interviews with Director Jeff Sanders on December 4, 2020, Program Manager Thomas Neal on December 10, 2020, and Task Force Leader Mike Kenny on January 20, 2021. These responders are well trained and highly experienced; thus, they are very capable of coordinating federal response efforts. However, according to the interviews with Sanders and Neal, the restrictions of work/rest cycles and stay times make US&R extremely labor intensive under such conditions. Consequently, they expect the enterprise to integrate into their response to maintain their battle rhythm.

On the other hand, local civil US&R authorities are less sure of their needs and expectations. They have far less exposure to the CBRN Response Enterprise’s US&R elements, and they dedicate fewer planning resources to domestic nuclear detonation response. Regardless, based on interviews with Division Chief Kevin Jones on July 28, 2020, Private Jacob (Jake) Hoffman on December 27, 2020, and Battalion Chief Craig Cooper, on January 15, 2020, they are also highly trained and experienced responders, and they are open to military aid.

Based upon this feedback, the DOD can begin to reshape its US&R response doctrine. However, even with this deeper understanding, certain conditions are presented by post-nuclear detonation environments that the enterprise must address to render aid effectively. These conditions include the threat of fire and added challenges to the performance of US&R skills while utilizing personal protective equipment (PPE), which can be mitigated by changes in gear and training.

(1)             Consider Embracing the “Super Squad” Concept

As suggested by Kenny in the interview, this concept involves the direct embedding of enterprise US&R personnel into national US&R response system rescue squads.

(2)             Emphasize Operations-Level (Level I) US&R Skills

With the added complexities presented to US&R efforts by post-nuclear detonation environments, it should not be assumed that US&R-capable soldiers and airmen will be able to perform at an advanced level after a nuclear attack. Therefore, the enterprise should emphasize mastery of operations-level (level I) US&R skills among all US&R elements.

(3)             Emphasize Wide Area Search Training

The enterprise should place greater emphasis on wide area search training, as wide area search is relatively less technical in nature, more suited for light damage zone operations, and a potential gap in preparedness and planning for civil US&R authorities, as also noted in the interview with Sanders.[8]

(4)             Require Soldiers and Airmen to Practice US&R Skills in CBRN PPE during Initial, Individual Training

Considering the limitations on dexterity and vision incurred by PPE, CBRN Response Enterprise soldiers and airmen should have the opportunity to practice relevant US&R skills in full PPE during initial training.[9]

(5)             Issue Self-Contained Breathing Apparatuses to all CBRN Response Enterprise US&R Elements

Given the prevalence of fire in post-nuclear detonation environments, all enterprise US&R forces should have immediate access to self-contained breathing apparatuses.

(6)             Improve Communication with Federal and Local Civil US&R Authorities

Across all levels of incident response, misconceptions exist about the CBRN Response Enterprise’s US&R capabilities and response doctrine. Furthermore, from the research interviews, it is apparent that local US&R authorities have far less interaction with the enterprise than their federal counterparts do. Consequently, as stated in the interviews with Jones, Hoffman, and Cooper, they struggled to articulate their expectations of the DOD, as they had little understanding of its capabilities. Since Defense Support of Civil Authorities is the DOD’s mandate, it bears the responsibility for engaging these authorities and rectifying any misunderstandings.[10]

[1] Department of the Army, Training Circular Number 3-37.51: Urban Search and Rescue (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2020), sec. Foreward,

[2] Chad English, email message to author, May 26, 2020.

[3] Department of the Army, ATP 3-11.47/AFTTP 3-2.79: Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and High-Yield Explosives Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP)/Homeland Response Force (HRF) Operations (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2013), E–3.

[4] Chad English, email message to author, May 26, 2020; Homeland Defense Civil Support Office, Urban Search and Rescuer Course Welcome Letter (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, n.d.), 2, accessed February 15, 2021,

[5] Government Accountability Office, Defense Civil Support: DoD Has Made Progress Incorporating the Homeland Response Force into the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Response Enterprise, GAO-16-599 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2016), 8,; William E. Sumner, email message to author, February 12, 2020.

[6] Federal Emergency Management Agency, Emergency Support Function #9—Search and Rescue Annex (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2019), 4,

[7] Federal Emergency Management Agency, 4; Department of Homeland Security, NIMS: Frequently Asked Questions (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, n.d.), 2, accessed December 15, 2020,

[8] Urban Search & Rescue, Wide Area Search: (PER213) (College Station, TX: Texas Engineering Extension Service, n.d.), accessed January 20, 2021,; “Damage Zones, Radiations Zones and Likely Rescue Activities after a Nuclear Detonation: Table,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Radiation Emergency Medical Management, accessed January 23, 2021,

[9] Mehdi Pourmoghani, “Effects of Gloves and Visual Acuity on Dexterity,” Scholar Commons, April 9, 2004,; Arthur Johnson, “Respirator Masks Protect Health but Impact Performance: A Review,” Journal of Biological Engineering 10, no. 4 (February 9, 2016),

[10] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3125.01D, CJCSI 3125.01D (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2015), 2,

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