The Origin of Miami Dade’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Program

What we’re talking about

Recent disasters this summer including the devastating condominium collapse in north Miami, the Haiti Earthquake, deadly floods in central Tennessee and Hurricane Ida’s impact in the Gulf Coast and Northeast have demonstrated the crucial role of Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams. In this episode of Disaster Recovery Roundtable, we discuss the origins of Miami-Dade’s USAR program and how it led to the national program we have today.

(0:00 – 0:53)

Recent disasters this summer, including the devastating condo collapse in North Miami, the Haiti earthquake, deadly floods in Central Tennessee, and Hurricane Ida’s impact on the Gulf Coast have demonstrated the role of urban search and rescue teams. In this episode of Disaster Recovery Roundtable, we’ll learn about the origins of Miami-Dade’s urban search and rescue program and how it’s led to the national program we have today. This is the Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage, and educate the emergency management community.

Our topics are timely and relevant, intended to promote the exchange of ideas and best practices. Now, here’s your host, Greg Paget. Hey, welcome to another episode of Disaster Recovery Roundtable, where we help share stories, best practices, and examine significant events within the emergency management sector.

(0:53 – 2:13)

This summer, we’ve experienced some major events, all of which have utilized urban search and rescue teams to help rescue survivors and, unfortunately, recover victims. From Hurricane Ida’s impact along the northern Gulf Coast to the devastating floods in August near Nashville in Central Tennessee. And then this September marks the 20th year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on the U.S. In late June, we saw the devastating collapse of the Champlain Towers in Surfside community north of Miami.

The towers were home to hundreds of people and, unfortunately, 98 perished, and it took about a month to recover all of those victims. That grim task was led by Miami-Dade Fire Department’s urban search and rescue team. Miami-Dade’s program has laid the foundation nationally for the development of FEMA’s urban search and rescue program.

Our guests in this episode are Tidal Basin’s Chief Development Officer, Carlos Castillo, and former Miami-Dade Fire Chief, Dave Downing. Both men have played significant roles in the development of the urban search and rescue program that we have today. Carlos served with Miami-Dade Fire for 26 years, including three years as the Emergency Management Director.

Carlos was instrumental in developing the urban search and rescue response system for the United States and internationally for the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. Stay with us. Carlos will join us after this short break.

(2:13 – 5:15)

You’re listening to Disaster Recovery Roundtable, available on your favorite podcast provider and on our website at And now, back to your host, Greg Paget. Carlos, welcome back to Disaster Recovery Roundtable. In this episode, we’re looking back at that historic and devastating building collapse there with the condo in Surfside, Florida in late June.

When you take a look at that situation, what happened, you know, obviously the search and rescue team there in South Florida played a vital role in helping to get there quickly and to start looking for victims. And then we saw the USAR program as a whole from a national perspective and even international support come into play. How has this event in South Florida really kind of put a highlight on the USAR program in a role that it plays in a disaster? Well, first of all, Greg, thanks for having me on this podcast.

And I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about some of the key topics and key issues going on now. Most recently, the Champlain Towers partial collapse. You know, this really, more than anything else, I think, showed the South Florida community and the rest of the country and the world the benefits of having a USAR team.

So Miami-Dade was one of the first in the world and one of the first in the country to develop this capability. And USAR, it stands for urban search and rescue. And it basically has to do with looking for, searching, providing advanced medical treatment to, and extricating people trapped in a partially collapsed building.

There’s a lot of inherent risk in that. So training is important. The equipment is important.

And in this case, you know, this was provided for the most part by FEMA through training and equipment purchase to have the capability to go to other places. In this case, with the Champlain Towers collapse in Surfside, it was at home. So for Miami-Dade, it was something that chances are everybody who was working on that rubble pile either directly knew someone or knew someone that knew someone that was affected by this collapse.

And you saw it was a firefighter whose daughter had died in the collapse. You know, it touched so many people, but the fact that the urban search and rescue team could provide that assistance and provide some hope to either find someone alive or to ensure that there was some closure for those who had lost loved ones in the collapse. How did this program evolve starting in South Florida and then become such an integral part of the national program we have today? Well, in the early 80s, you know, 1985, there was an earthquake in Mexico City.

It was a large earthquake. And obviously, Mexico City is one of the largest, population-wise, one of the largest cities in the world. And this was a strong earthquake where a lot of buildings had collapsed.

(5:16 – 8:04)

And Miami-Dade sent a team of a handful of people there with very little equipment, just experience from what we had had in Miami-Dade County in South Florida. Although, you know, South Florida, for most people know, there isn’t much of a risk of earthquakes, but there are a lot of other type of emergencies. And although they don’t result in the same risk in terms of building collapse, but they are emergencies.

So we had our people going. Shortly after that, we entered into an agreement with the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance under the Agency for International Development to develop a team that could respond to earthquakes and other disasters anywhere in the world. We also sold them on the idea, on the importance of building a capability locally.

So part of our agreement with them, with OFDA, was to help develop training programs for Latin American, the Caribbean first responders, so that they could be, eventually could be self-sufficient when it came to disaster response. And part of that included being able to respond to their daily emergency. So that grew.

And three years later, in 1988, there was a major earthquake in what was the Soviet Union at the time. It was in Armenia. And we responded.

And I remember responding and not knowing what we were going to be up against. In the wintertime, it was a 6.9 magnitude earthquake with, officially, there were 25,000 people killed in that earthquake. But we were able to make some rescues.

A lot of it was done with teams from throughout the world who sent, countries who sent teams, but coordination could have been much better improved. So the US brought together countries who had sent representatives and teams to Armenia, brought them together in the US to develop some, to improve coordination. So from that came several protocols under the United Nations that eventually became multilateral, multinational treaties to help with other types of disaster response.

And that included what responsibility does a country providing assistance have? What responsibilities do countries affected by a disaster, how should they ask for assistance? How could they be specific? And a couple other protocols that helped in more on onsite coordination and developing what the teams are. This has grown. And now some of the teams, one of the teams that responded was part of that is Israel that responded to the Champlain Towers collapse.

(8:05 – 8:46)

They were part of this as well. So it’s part of this agreement that when you ask for a USAR team, you know exactly what you’re getting. That helped with the coordination.

And it’s grown. The first response here to a similar collapse was in 1995 with the Oklahoma City bombing. And unfortunately, after that evening, there was nobody pulled out alive out of that building because it was an explosion that occurred before the collapse.

But you always maintain hope. And that was the thought throughout this. And the fact that you have these teams are in your local jurisdiction.

(8:46 – 9:53)

The folks that were on the rubble pile in Miami-Dade County for the Surfside building, those are people who are responding to calls for assistance on a daily basis in your neighborhood. So for a jurisdiction to have these teams and this capability there is invaluable for them. You’re from South Florida.

So obviously this has hit really home for you as well, having a career also with Miami-Dade Fire Department. Is this the most wide use of search and rescue that the community has ever seen? Or is it comparable to, maybe it’s hard to compare that to Andrew because of the extent and the size of Andrew, but how does it compare to past responses for a local USAR team? So the Champlain Tower partial collapse, different from some of the other responses we’d had in South Florida. And yes, I’m a native of Miami and born and raised there.

And I saw a lot of hurricanes as I was growing up. And I was already at Miami-Dade Fire Rescue when Hurricane Andrew hit. And it was different.

(9:53 – 10:08)

There were people who were working, many more people were directly affected. So people who had to come into work, a lot of us left our families behind and knew that we had to come in. The difference here is this was a more localized disaster with the Champlain Tower.

(10:09 – 11:10)

And, but it required a lot of intense work to try to, and against the time clock to try to find victims, to try to find live victims there, which is always the goal. You use canine that are trained to search for and locate live victims. You use acoustic and seismic listening devices.

You use fiber optic cameras to everything you can to increase the likelihood of finding somebody alive. And it was a very isolated incident in that it was located in one area. So the number of people weren’t affected, although people were affected, but not to the point of a, say, a Hurricane Andrew.

So it was a very different response, but obviously as critical in terms of lifesaving and potential risk to everybody there, because there was a lot of risk in these buildings. This building is a partial collapse. There’s always a possibility of a secondary collapse.

(11:10 – 14:04)

You may remember there was a fire, there were fire that was almost impossible to extinguish. There was a lot of rain, just a lot of, a lot of hazards on scene that, that people were, were dealing with. And the community saw that because there was a lot of video, you know, constant news coverage and people in the community realized, you know, what the work that the rescuers were doing and others.

They’re still looking for the cause of this, but would you ever think that you would see a building like this collapse in Miami-Dade? So I never thought I’d see, although I’ve seen many building collapses, I know I don’t want to see another one. You know, this is an unfortunate situation that a lot of work, I know that a lot of work will go into and is already going into identifying the cause, and more importantly, to prevent this from happening again. We saw that with Hurricane Andrew, you know, a lot of changes that, that brought about, you know, before Hurricane Andrew, South Florida was the second strictest building code in the world.

It wasn’t always as enforced as it, as it could be. And that changed a lot. So the Miami-Dade County building code is, is something that that’s held up as an example of a, of a best practice.

And a lot of that comes from experiences like this. So I have no doubt that there, there are a lot of good people, you know, led by the Mayor, Danielle Levine-Cava, who’s, who’s at the, the County Mayor, who’s doing a lot to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. And I have no doubt that once a cause is found, and it may be, it may not be as simple as you think, whatever the cause was, chances are there’s several contributing factors.

But, you know, I don’t, I believe there’s nothing, no such thing as a natural disaster. It’s all man made or human generated things we could have done better. And I think that’s what the future will hold.

When we come back after the break, we’re going to be chatting with Chief Dave Downing, a colleague of yours from Miami-Dade. He’s had a long career with their, with the fire department. What is your impression of Chief Downing? What, what kind of fire firefighter is he? Oh, Chief Downey is, aside from being a longtime colleague, he’s also a close friend.

And he’s been involved in this almost as long as I have. I’m a little older than he is. He’s been doing this for a long time as well, respected in the fire and emergency services, as well as in the, the urban search and rescue community as, as a strong, dedicated leader.

And I know that he was helping out on the, on the rubble pile. He even though he was already retired, but he was doing a lot because of his, his dedication as well. So when we come back, we’ll hear from Chief Dave Downing from Miami-Dade right after this.

(14:04 – 17:35)

Don’t miss the next episode of Disaster Recovery Roundtable, and be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. And now back to your host, Greg Paget. So Chief Dave Downing, we’re so excited you are here to join us today in this episode of Disaster Recovery Roundtable.

As we take a look at the USAR program over the years in Miami-Dade, and of course, unfortunately recently really come to play and, and very active in the rescue efforts there with the condo collapse. What’s the history of USAR there in Miami? Well, our history really goes all the way back to 1985 and the Mexico City earthquake. And our organization had been doing a lot of work with Central and South America, especially through the Red Cross with training.

And when that devastating earthquake hit, members of Miami-Dade, at that time, Metro-Dade Fire Rescue, because of our proximity, because of our large Spanish-speaking cadre of rescuers and the expertise were asked to come and assist in, in Mexico City. Since then, there’s been several international deployments before what we know today as the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System. So after Mexico City, there was a devastating earthquake in the Philippines and Soviet Armenia, all precursors to the FEMA, what we know today as the FEMA USAR system.

So all three of those disasters had representatives from Metro-Dade, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue respond and assist. So what would say then really the history of USAR began in South Florida with Miami-Dade and then became a national program? I think that the, the idea of deploying resources to another area to assist certainly began with Miami-Dade. There, a lot of fire rescue agencies across the nation, across the globe have had internal capabilities, you know, within their organizations.

But the idea of sending a cadre of rescuers, you know, to another country or another part of the United States, certainly was born out of that Mexico City earthquake. We also saw on 9-11, of course, a lot of support in New York City after the Twin Towers collapsed as well. With your work in Miami-Dade over the, you know, many years in different positions as you’ve worked your way up really from, I think, starting off, you know, in a fire, in a fire team program to all the way up to fire chief, you’ve really seen it all.

What are some of the most memorable events in South Florida that you’ve had to go through, especially when utilizing search and rescue? Well, I guess the, the earliest was the Hurricane Andrew that once again devastated South Florida and in our own backyard, our own response area. That really was my first kind of awakening to the search and rescue concept and how it, how it plays out and how it’s organized and, and, and, and how we operate, you know, from there we’ve, we’ve deployed to, you know, disasters all over the world. I was, you know, in Hurricane Opal here in Florida and our panhandle.

(17:36 – 18:13)

I went to Izmit, Turkey for an earthquake in Turkey on behalf of our State Department. Our whole team went. Of course, September 11th, I was part of the team that went to the World Trade Center.

That was, that was tough because that was personal. New York City Fire Department and Police Department also had a search and rescue team just like ours. And so we had a lot of, you know, I had a lot of friends.

We all had a lot of friends that were, that were lost on September 11th. So that, that was a very personal deployment. You know, from there, a myriad of hurricanes.

(18:13 – 22:07)

I was the team leader in, in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina, hurricanes across our state. And before Surfside, my last deployment was the team leader in Haiti in 2010. I went with our team to the earthquake in Haiti, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

So really I’ve done a lot of different responses. All of them are memorable for different reasons. All of them have been learning experiences and, and you know, the good, you take the good and the bad with each one of those.

You mentioned Surfside. When did you first hear about the collapse? And then what role did you get pulled into as a retired member of the, of the team there at Miami-Dade Fire? So in the state of Florida and I’m sure many states are like this as well, the, in the emergency management, the emergency support function of four, which is firefighting and nine, which is search and rescue. Those two are combined in the state of Florida and they are the responsibility of the state fire marshal’s office.

After I had retired, I’ve been very active in our state with the, with the development of a urban search and rescue system here in the state of Florida and the refinement of our statewide emergency response plan. So I’ve served now for about 10 years as the deputy coordinator for our state’s emergency response plan. That’s for fire rescue resources.

That was born out of Hurricane Andrew, you know, coming up with a better way to deploy our resources across the state. So the director of the state fire marshal’s office, after I retired a year ago now, said, I’d like you to come to work for us as a part-time employee. Not sure exactly all that you’re going to do.

You’re going to continue to coordinate the emergency response plan. I do some work with our domestic security council, things like that. So just kind of a part-time employee.

So honestly, over the last year, not much has happened. Well, about two o’clock in the morning, the morning of the collapse, I received a call from our state emergency management office. State warning point had been notified of a, of a building collapse here in South Florida.

And I was directed to represent the state fire marshal’s office in coordinating the state’s response, fire rescue response, primarily search and rescue the morning of the collapse. So I learned about it about a half hour after it occurred, I guess, 40 minutes after it actually occurred. And worked for about 19 days at the site.

My responsibility primarily was to coordinate our state resources, which we have eight urban search and rescue task forces, various types here in the state of Florida. And then because of my connection and my involvement with the national system, I was able to connect a lot of the pieces, right? I’m the retired fire chief of the fire department. That’s the authority having jurisdiction for this disaster.

They’re running the incident management team and the command. So I know all of those players. We all work together.

I have my official role in the state of Florida. And then my, in my past life, I served as the national representative for the national urban search and rescue response system. So of course, I know all of those individuals.

So I felt it was kind of a good role for me to kind of connect all the dots when it comes to urban search and rescue to kind of help facilitate this disaster moving along. How did this compare to some of these other scenes you’ve been to? You said you’ve been to some earthquakes overseas. You’ve been to the scene of 9-11.

(22:07 – 24:11)

How did this condo collapse compare to all that? Well, I mean, my first thought was how could this happen? Absent an act of terrorism, or a natural disaster such as an earthquake, which we don’t have in Florida, how could this happen? I continue to ask myself that to this day. So that was kind of my first thought process. And then as we’re looking at the building, looking at the type of collapse, looking at the devastation, my mind kind of went to, what are our priorities? What do we need to do? And Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, from the moment they arrived on the scene, had been doing a phenomenal job.

I mean, I’m so proud of my organization and what they did. And they really, what happens in the first few minutes of any disaster is going to dictate the next hours, days, weeks, or months. And they did a phenomenal job in the very beginning and really laid the groundwork.

So my role was, where do we fit in? What can I do to help in this disaster? And I really got focused on the job at hand and getting to work. When you got on the scene and you guys started to implement search and rescue, when did you kind of start to realize we’re not going to probably pull anybody out alive? Was it like day three or four, or was it in the very early stages? Well, compared to my recent history, it was much more compact, right? Because it wasn’t like the Trade Center that covered a span of seven buildings and multiple acres. And it certainly wasn’t like Haiti that covered a city.

So it was a much more compact disaster, collapse. But it presented its unique problems. I mean, we still had part of a structure standing.

(24:11 – 29:41)

There was tremendous uncertainty as to if or when this part of the structure was going to collapse. So there are those factors that come into play. So there were commonalities.

I mean, if you remember the pictures of the Murrow building in Oklahoma City, it looks eerily similar to that in the sense that there was still part of a structure standing and we had all this debris hanging off that we referred to as widowmakers, large, very heavy slabs that are just hanging by a piece of metal that affect the ability to do search and rescue within that area. So it was the same in the sense of how a building collapses and it was different. You still live down there.

You’re from South Florida. How has this impacted the community? Well, it’s been a devastating impact to our community. I mean, Surfside is a small city.

It’s very compact. There’s a lot of full-time residents there as well as like any beach city, some transient residents too. But it really has brought our community together.

It’s very similar to what we saw in Hurricane Andrew in the sense that you see the good in so many people. I can’t tell you how many people have been coming out and thanking everybody and the kids writing letters to the rescuers and the people coming by and leaving things at the memorial. It makes you proud of your area.

In South Florida, like large areas of the country, sometimes they seem to be very diverse and very in their own way, but it was very similar to New York City. My opinion being a South Floridian to New York City was maybe the people are a little abrasive and to the point and moving on. But after September 11th, I mean, when we walked around the city, it was amazing how everybody was welcoming everybody there and how kind everybody was.

I’m so proud of our city and our old South Florida community and how they really rose to the occasion. What role will the fire department play there in Miami-Dade to prevent this from happening in the future? We’ve heard a lot already about the integrity of the building, past performance inspections and warning signs, and then other sister buildings and other buildings the same age, the saltwater impact to South Florida structures. Where is all that going to kind of settle down when the dust settles? What are we looking at as we move forward? Well, that’s one of the great mysteries that we’re all very interested in knowing.

Why? Why did this building, why did it stay up for 40 years, 40 years of salt, 40 years of hurricanes, 40 years of beach? Why? We’re all wondering that. I’m sure that what will come out of this, and the National Institute of Science and Technology’s NIST is tasked with doing that work. And they were there pretty much the first day of the collapse.

And it’s going to be their role to figure out, why did this building collapse and what measures do we need to take to look at other buildings and what protective measures are we going to need? This is not a South Florida issue. This is potentially any coastal community issue. As far as the fire department goes, they don’t take a role in the actual building construction.

They take a role in the fire protective systems in a building. But this is really going to be local building departments and regulations, not unlike Hurricane Andrew. We had an incredible change in our rules and our construction, building construction in South Florida post Hurricane Andrew, because we learned a lot.

And I see that being the same thing here. I just see it being more applicable across the country. But as far as the fire department’s role, they’re not going to play a major role in that part of it.

Chief Downing, we appreciate your time on this podcast. So looking back at the USAR program and this tragedy in South Florida, you’re also really a symbolic representation of what a young firefighter can do with a career in the fire department. You spent your whole career there.

You worked your way up from a firefighter and a paramedic all the way up into fire chief. And so for those who are dedicated to the profession, you know, I think you could say it can be a journey and it can take you places. You know, you can learn a lot and you can have a robust career.

Absolutely. Thank you. You’ve been listening to Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage and educate.

For more information on this episode, visit our podcast page at You can download previous podcasts, learn more about the programs we discussed and suggest a topic for a future episode. You can also find us on your favorite podcast provider. This has been a Tidal Basin production.

Thanks for listening.