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Structural engineers and humanitarian response to disasters

Date published

This guidance outlines some of the key roles structural engineers have in disaster response.

Author: Filip Kirazov

Structural engineers and humanitarian response to disasters

Structural engineers play a key role in responding to both natural and man-made emergencies, contributing in various ways, including but not limited to:

  • Serving as integral members of urban search and rescue (USAR) teams
  • Conducting structural damage assessments to determine the immediate habitability of buildings after a disaster
  • Assisting in the construction of emergency infrastructure, such as field shelters, hospitals, and others
  • Providing remote engineering support to those actively engaged in on-site operations
Urban search and rescue (USAR) engineering

International Urban Search & Rescue (USAR) missions involve the critical task of locating and rescuing individuals trapped in collapsed structures, particularly in the aftermath of natural hazard events like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, etc. Within the USAR team, the structural engineer plays a key role by offering technical engineering expertise to determine the safest approach for accessing and extricating victims. This involves navigating significant risks, such as the potential for further structural collapse, earthquake aftershocks and others. Additionally, these engineers possess the versatility to undertake various tasks integral to the USAR operation – see below diagram of structural engineers’ inputs and responsibilities within the disaster response cycle.

USAR Engineer Inputs and Responsibilities at Each Phase of the International USAR Response Cycle (J. Macabuag et. al (2020) 'A Proposed Method for Conducting Structural Assessment for Search & Rescue Operations', 17th World Conference on Earthquake Engineering, 17WCEE)

In the disaster affected region, local and international teams collaborate under the coordination of the host country's emergency organisations. While more than fifty countries worldwide have established USAR teams, not all of them are equipped with structural engineers.

Credit: SARAID

Structural engineers in USAR teams typically bring substantial professional experience and undergo specialist training alongside search and rescue teams over an extended period. All team members undertake rigorous training to operate effectively in challenging conditions and possess specialised knowledge and equipment related to building collapses and the associated risks of operating within partially damaged or precarious structures. It is noteworthy that these engineers are often volunteers, and commit to being available for deployment within 24 hours of an incident. Their dedication and expertise are crucial components of the global effort to respond swiftly and effectively to urban search and rescue scenarios.

Credit: SARAID

The International Search and Rescue Advisory Group’s (INSARAG) main purpose is to facilitate coordination between the various international USAR teams who make themselves available for deployment to countries experiencing devastating events of structural collapse due primarily to earthquakes. The group achieves such coordination through facilitating opportunities for communication between these groups ahead of such events. These meetings of teams have resulted in many practical agreements between them that have streamlined working together during actual disasters. Much of the detail on how these teams have agreed to work together can be found in the INSARAG Guidelines, a living document outlining the principles agreed within the group.

Further resources:
INSARAG Directory of International USAR teams


Structural damage assessments

As search and rescue operations are wound down, structural engineers may also support host countries in their evaluation of damage to buildings. In the aftermath of a disaster, there is an urgent requirement to assess the magnitude of damage promptly, providing information for effective response by determining whether evacuation is necessary and defining the extent and severity of the destruction. Damage assessments hold implications for life safety, necessary remedial actions, compensation considerations, and inform strategies and financing for response and recovery. Evaluating the damage to affected structures requires inspections conducted by competent and experienced assessors, usually structural engineers, and other built environment professionals.

Like USAR, the damage assessment efforts are led by the host country designated organisations. International structural engineers can provide valuable assistance by helping enhance the consistency in assessment data and its analysis, empowering the host government to make informed post-disaster decisions. This involves efficiently organising damage assessors, establishing an official working system for evacuating unsafe buildings, defining a uniform decision-making process for "evacuate/don't evacuate," and contributing to an effective system for the centralised storage, analysis, and reporting of damage data.

Construction of humanitarian shelters and infrastructure

The role of the structural engineer in humanitarian shelter and settlements responses encompasses assessments, design, technical support, capacity development and coordination. The engineer needs the management skills necessary to ensure the provision of safe, durable, dignified, and appropriate shelters. The engineer may contribute to the design of emergency shelters, transitional shelters, temporary and permanent housing, as well as communal facilities such as schools and health centres, perhaps using locally available materials and local construction techniques. This type of work will often continue for months or years beyond the initial crisis.

Remote engineering support

Remote engineering support to in-country damage assessment and/or urban search and rescue (USAR) teams proves highly effective in both the response and recovery phases following a disaster. The primary contributions of the remote support team are to provide synthesised technical information relevant to the affected area and deliver specific engineering expertise tailored to the nature and consequences of the disaster event. Additional support tasks that can be conducted remotely include, but are not limited to:

  • Gathering local and technical intelligence
  • Identifying and mapping priority sites
  • Analysing local technical standards and interpreting technical documents
  • Offering specialist expertise in seismic engineering, blast engineering, bridge engineering, marine engineering, and other relevant fields

Most importantly, remote support alleviates pressure on the team members operating on the ground, enabling them to concentrate on their immediate tasks.


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