FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Markings Guide for Survival

Urban search and rescue markings littered homes after major disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. The spray paint has been long removed or covered, but the legacy remains. To many, what they mean is a mystery- but it doesn’t have to be that way. We’ll give you a quick crash course on USAR markings and why they are important.

What are Urban Search and Rescue Markings?

These markings are sprayed on the side of residences searched by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) responders. The markings meaning is broken down as follows:

  • Single Slash: This means that FEMA responders have gone inside and that a building search is in progress. This helps reduce duplication of search efforts and lets other responders know where their teams are searching.
  • X with Writing in Quadrants: This means that a search has been completed.
    • Left Quadrant: Search team’s identifier “tag”, usually a short acronym or military number.
    • Top Quadrant: Time and date search team left the building.
    • Right Quadrant: List of hazards present (if any)
    • Bottom Quadrant: Number of survivors and bodies found. Usually noted in that order: 0/0 for no survivors and no corpses.
  • X with a Box around it: This means “Do Not Enter”, usually because it is dangerous.

Here is a photo essay with many examples from Hurricane Katrina: Katrina + 5: An X-Code Exhibition.

Here is an example with all of the USAR marks used during Hurrican Katrina:

Katrina Search and Rescue Markings

What Does This Mean for a Resourceful Prepper in an SHTF Scenario?

If you are out and about after a disaster, now you can easily see what is going on at buildings that have been searched. Seeing a single slash on a building could also let you know that a search party is near; whether you are looking to encounter them or not. You can visit friends’ homes nearby and be able to tell if they were searched, what time, by who, and how many survivors and dead were found. That is a good amount of information for a little graffiti on the wall! That brings us to the second useful ability to know the FEMA markings.

Not only can you read the markings, but if SHTF gets really nasty, you can write a marking. A large X with a box around it on the side of your house tells search parties, the military, and others who know the markings that it is not safe to enter your house. Paired with light and noise discipline, this could be a great deterrent to intruders in an SHTF scenario.

Since your house may not look particularly dangerous, tagging the FEMA X and filling in some info may be the better choice. It may be more believable that your house was searched and passed over already rather than just too dangerous to enter. A foolproof tag that most national guard units would use is simply your state abbreviation in the left quadrant. Keeping a can or two of spray paint in your disaster kit may be a good idea.

The Final Word

While all of this is good knowledge, I hope you never have to use it. The probabilities are slim that you encounter a disaster where these are used, but there is a chance knowing the Urban Search and Rescue markings could help. Check out our TrueRisk index for more likely scenarios, and make sure you are prepared for those as well. 

Keep exploring, stay prepared, and be safe.

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Urban Search and Rescue Markings

Rusty Collins

I am an engineer, Air Force veteran, emergency manager, husband, dad, and experienced prepper. I developed emergency and disaster plans around the globe and responded to many attacks and accidents as a HAZMAT technician. I have been exposed to deadly chemical agents, responded to biological incidents, and dealt with natural disasters. Check out my full story here: Rusty's Story

10 thoughts on “FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Markings Guide for Survival

  • Here’s one you might not have considered…the Super Volcano known as Yellowstone. Forget New Madrid, that’s localized mud-spewers.


    The thing has a history of a major, caldera reconfiguring super-eruption every 630K years and it’s 10,000 years overdue right now. Think ash hundreds of miles into the atmosphere, hitching a ride on the jet streams and eventually falling to earth on a global pattern. Think ‘volcanic winter’. Think ‘inhaling volcanic ash and having it turn to cement in your lungs. I’ll leave you with these oh, so cheerful thoughts and let you look into it on your own.

    • The U.S. Geological Survey, University of Utah and National Park Service scientists with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory maintain that they “see no evidence that another such cataclysmic eruption will occur at Yellowstone in the foreseeable future. Recurrence intervals of these events are neither regular nor predictable.” This conclusion was reiterated in December 2013 in the aftermath of the publication of a study by University of Utah scientists finding that the “size of the magma body beneath Yellowstone is significantly larger than had been thought.” The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory issued a statement on its website stating,

      Although fascinating, the new findings do not imply increased geologic hazards at Yellowstone, and certainly do not increase the chances of a ‘supereruption’ in the near future. Contrary to some media reports, Yellowstone is not ‘overdue’ for a supereruption. Other reports were hyperbolic.

  • Rusty,

    This is one excellent article and I would love to get your permission to reprint it (with full accreditation and a link to your site) in my Dying Time Newsletter. I am also requesting permission to reprint the article that was linked to this one titled “6 Ways To Avoid Being Herded Into a FEMA Camp.

    • Ray, glad you found it useful. Feel free to reprint both with accreditation.

  • Great information, and something worth considering.

    However, it just occured to me that if one were to use either the FEMA or INSARAG markings as a preemptive action on a dwelling, in the hope that it would reduce the chance that someone might come in and help themselves to your SHTF preparations, that person should also consider tagging dwellings to both sides as well. Otherwise, someone that recognizes these markings and what they mean might also be smart enough to wonder why this one particular dwelling was marked as having been searched, while others on either side are clear of similar markings. That person might also conclude this to be very odd, and result in them deciding to check it out.

    Hopefully, that person will not be of the murdering, cutthroat variety of people. But, it could go either way.

    When one considers that these days there are more candidates for the Darwin Award than ever before, most people will be too stupid and ignorant to be able to figure out something like this. Unfortunately, it will only take one intelligent, murdering cutthroat to undo everything that you have done in the way of SHTF preparations. Not all can be counted on as being “Darwin Award” stupid, and the necessary precautions need to be taken.

  • This type of lie can cost lives and hinder rescue efforts.
    Please reconsider before falsifying markings as it can hinder search efforts. If someone is in need and has to seek shelter in your home after you have left. We (Search and Rescue) need to know the truth about wether your home has been searched or not. A disaster is no time to be selfish.

    • If it means I won’t be forced into some fema internment camp with my civil rights stripped away. you bet your ass I’m gonna use it. Oh and don’t even think it wouldn’t happen for those who go to one. Look at how the refugees in the super dome were treated and you’d see it was just a few steps up from being in prison and none of them were allowed exit. I will either seek shelter under my own terms or shelter in place if the danger level is negligible.

      This crap you’re spewing about it hindering the efforts to find the injured is just that; a load of crap. If there were any injured, there would either be 1) no one to make the markings, or 2) those who were sound in body would find help and leave a note while they’re gone. It has proper f*** all to do with being selfish. Hoarding supplies from those who need it is selfish. Doing what you can to not be forced into somewhere that would be best to stay away from is self preservation. But you’re a cog in the machine so you have to say these things.

      This is all I have to say.

  • What are the markings in red, above the yellow “X”, and what are the documents attached to either side?

    • Answers: in this photo the red marks are an earlier s&r visit, on Sep 2nd, by a Texas helper, and No Entry was done.
      After Katrina/ Rita the first purpose of markings was as intended— disaster mortician service of collecting corpses. That’s a pretty clear health benefit, even for many independent, prepared people. Most NOLa homes were boarded tight, so NE was most common. S& R skipped such by logic that tight closure done from outside indicates empty home.

  • Your, FEMA X is wrong! The top quadrant, is time in! The bottom quadrant is time out. The left quadrant is who you are! Further more the right quadrant is all hazards, including people,pets,damage to structure etc.
    The reason for the time in and out, is thus!
    If you go in and put your mark and time in the correct quadrants, but do not come out! The next person arriving; then knows you have not got out of the dwelling/constructed building! Thus, there may be a very serious hazard!
    Also if Search and rescue where using this system. They would not leave a living person inside a hazardous structure!! (A cadaver is a potential hazard, think potential disease). Within the FEMA system thier is an option for other information. Which can be written inside a square or rectangle!!


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