Jewish Pittsburgher leads regional search and rescue team
As chief of PA Strike Team 1, Alan Hausman acts as the "conductor" for a group of volunteers capable of rescuing people from collapsed buildings, floods or terrorist attacks.
Alan Hausman, vice president of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha congregation, has logged more than 10,000 hours of training throughout his career.
As Chief of PA Strike Team 1 — an urban search and rescue team that is equipped to handle situations as extreme as building collapses, floods and terrorist attacks — Hausman leads a team of nearly 90 volunteers. Each of his volunteers, who hold day jobs including physicians, paramedics, firefighters and retirees, must complete 300 hours of training from the get-go and routine updates as they go.
As Hausman puts it, it’s best to know your craft so well you don’t have to think or react, you just act.
To put this into perspective, the final exam for a structural technician class involves moving a 200-pound slab of concrete — by hand — before finding, rescuing and treating a patient, and returning the concrete back where it began.
“They have the equipment, the training, the knowledge to do what they need to do,” Hausman said of the volunteers who make up Strike Team 1. “I’m just the conductor here. My job is to put all the pieces together, because whether I’m there or not, they’re going to get the person out.”
Despite all the preparation, Hausman said the team has only used their training a handful of times, luckily because they are generally only deployed for the most high-risk situations. Last summer, they earned the name “refrigerator rescue team” after they saved a woman in Washington County who was pinned under a refrigerator in a collapsed apartment building for nine hours.
The federal government formed PA Strike Team 1 in 2002 in response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. After the initial planes hit in New York, the Pennsylvania Task Force team, which is deployed by FEMA to assist state and local emergency responders, went to New York for a month, leaving Pennsylvania vulnerable after another plane struck down in a field in Somerset County.
Hausman, 59, and now working with the City of Pittsburgh emergency management team, has been involved with the team since its inception and with emergency services since college when he took an EMT course as a student at University of Pittsburgh for a required physical education credit.
Shortly after graduation, while participating in a B’nai B’rith bowling event, someone at the bowling alley went into cardiac arrest. Hausman’s skills kicked in and he performed CPR for 45 minutes. Unfortunately, he was not able to save the man’s life, but the experience showed him a passion he didn’t know he had.
“I was hooked on this,” he said. “This is where I really wanted to put some time and effort.”
Throughout his career, he has volunteered with fire departments, companies that build emergency response equipment, Salvation Army disaster services and the city of Pittsburgh. He now works with the city’s emergency management team as his day job, managing the Strike Team as a volunteer gig.
Though the city compensates Hausman and his team for their time and is very supportive of their efforts, Hausman said the money is never enough to cover everything. Over the years, he continued, federal money for the project has dwindled.
It’s dangerous, but you don’t think that every time. You go into response mode. The most important thing is to know your craft so well, so you don’t think. You just act.
Just as he has always been interested in emergency management and services, Hausman said he has always been “deeply entrenched” in the Jewish community; he grew up a member of Congregation Beth Shalom, attended Hillel Academy for a few years and won an international young leadership award for his involvement in B’nai B’rith.
Now, as vice president of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Hausman said he is hoping to work on improving the safety and security of the building itself as well as getting more people involved in safety and security training. Next week, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Security Director Brad Orsini will lead a training for the congregation’s security committee, ushers and greeters to prepare for the High Holidays.
“[Hausman] works for City of Pittsburgh emergency management, so it’s a great fit to work on security related issues at the synagogue,” Orsini said. “We [can] plan out experiences together and come up with a great plan for the synagogue.”
From Hausman’s perspective, this training is particularly important for the Jewish community so that they can remain open and welcoming to everyone.
“A lot of people are nervous when they don’t know [how to respond],” Hausman said. “We want to be open to people, but we want to be able to identify and be prepared if something did happen.”
Though Hausman said he often doesn’t feel any emotion while he is working on an emergency response call — whether that is rescuing someone from a collapsed building or a flooded car or assisting with cleaning up a train derailment — it usually hits him later on.
“You recall it in your mind to try to make it better,” he said. “Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it can really eat at you.”
He used to ask himself if he would be able to voluntarily put himself into a position where he knew there would be a high likelihood that he would get injured or killed. Throughout his career, he has answered that question time and time again, but one moment stands out for him.
As he was working on rescuing people from a flood in August 2016, he got a call that someone was stuck in an area that was already closed off. As he plowed his truck through the water, he saw a woman trapped with water halfway up her chest.
“I said, ‘You know what, she’s only got one chance,’” Hausman recalled. “There’s a very good chance you may not come back out of this, but we’re going to do this anyways.
“It’s dangerous, but you don’t think that every time. You go into response mode,” he added. “The most important thing is to know your craft so well, so you don’t think. You just act.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at
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