Despite the grim topic of search and – hopefully – rescue, there is something comforting walking past massive stacks of equipment ready to save lives.

Orange County Fire Authority Deputy Chief Mike Petro scans orange crates, nods toward an open black case big enough for a rocket launcher. Instead, there is a camera housed in a black steel tube connected to a long cable, earphones, more cable.

“We can core a hole through a concrete slab,” Petro says, “put a camera and listening device down and detect human life.”

It’s a powerful statement, especially since we live in earthquake country.

Yet Petro’s skill and the array of equipment masks trouble. In a post-recession era, search and rescue teams across the country report they remain hard-pressed for funds.

The ability to keep equipment up to date is suffering, say experts in the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System. So is training.

COST OF SERVICE

Through a variety of circumstances – mostly dedication – Orange County is home to two of the nation’s three “major incident management” leaders for the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System.

The leaders’ knowledge comes from helping manage wildfires and other disasters and serves the area well. Just last week, a task force leader led the effort to battle the blaze in Holy Jim Canyon.

Almost at the same time, experts from Orange County’s search and rescue team deployed to Hawaii and American Samoa in anticipation of hurricanes. The men are back now, ready for wildfire season.

Confused? A little background.

There are 28 search and rescue teams in the United States. Many states have no teams and rescuers are dispatched on an as-needed basis. Few states have more than one team. Because of wildfires, earthquakes, other natural disasters, population, California has eight teams.

Los Angeles County and city, the city of Riverside and Orange County each have their own search and rescue teams. Orange County has 220 members. All are active firefighters and only work search and rescue when called.

The Orange County task force was in Oklahoma in 1995 when the federal building was bombed and a decade later the team played a major role in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. It has worked mudslides in Washington, floods in Colorado, hurricanes in Texas.

Team leaders also oversaw the 2007 Santiago fire and the Yorba Linda blaze the following year.

The sticking point isn’t personnel. Local “sponsoring” agencies, such as OCFA through local cities, provide staffing, even some funding for training and equipment.

But the feds make up the rest of the funding and that is where the search and rescue system is starting to crack.

It costs about $2 million a year to fund a search and rescue team. Locals kick in about $1 million. FEMA, firefighters say, is supposed to make up the difference.

“Local communities such as ours,” says Joe Kerr, a spokesman for the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, “actually subsidize the federal government because national US&R funding is so inadequate.

“In fact, just after the Great Recession many national teams were not properly staffed,” Kerr says, “did not receive adequate training and were ill prepared to respond to a national emergency.”

READY TO SAVE LIVES

When teams roll they rumble.

Orange County search and rescue has 90,000 pounds of equipment and is self-sustaining for at least 72 hours and for up to five days. They convoy has several command SUVs, two buses, two box trucks, three 53-foot semi-tractor trailer rigs.

“We’re ready to go within six hours,” says Capt. Richard Ventura. “Our specialty is collapsed structures.”

Ventura reels off specialties within the specialty. “Concrete, masonry, wood frame, steel.

“We have heavy rigging, search dogs,” Ventura continues. “We can move on the ground or in flight.”

Petro mentions every piece of equipment is cataloged, and points out each box also lists contents. Of gear and technology, the deputy chief says, “Equipment has an end of life. It’s a constant battle.”

Still, Petro assures, “We are continually making it better.”

Suddenly, the concept of a significant local quake looms large in my mind. My earthquake kit has disappeared. I even forgot about having extra water.

Yes, readers, that’s a reminder for you too.

But the battle for search and rescue teams isn’t only with aging equipment. There is a political battle heating up in Washington, D.C.

FUNDING EFFORTS

In mid-August, the International Association of Firefighters met in Las Vegas and discussed asking FEMA to beef up funding for the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System.

The Orange County union and several other associations in California approved a resolution supporting an increase in federal funding. One of the reasons is the expanded role of search and rescue.

“The US&R System,” the resolution explains, “was originally created for earthquake response.

“It has evolved into a federal, state, and local capability for structural collapses, other natural or human-caused disasters, and threats or acts of terrorism, including acts involving weapons of mass destruction.”

The resolution goes on to state that the average cost to maintain a task force approaches $2 million. However, federal funding is less than half that and leaves a $1 million “burden for local sponsoring agencies.

“For this national program to survive,” the resolution continues, “funding from the federal government must be increased to reduce the burden upon local governments.”

Earlier this year, a bipartisan coalition of senators introduced a bill, S.2971, that would require FEMA, in conjunction with local agencies, to make funds available for search and rescue training as well as buying and maintaining equipment.

Significantly, the bill “authorizes appropriations … to carry out the system.”

Last week, S.2971 got out of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which oversees FEMA as well as search and rescue, and was placed on the Senate’s legislative calendar.

Perhaps there’s a better name for S.2971 – Earthquake, flood and fire insurance for humans.

Read story in Orange County Register