When an elderly woman accidentally drove through the safety cables in a Downtown parking structure, the emergency responders who arrived on the scene were part of a specialized unit trained to handle complicated search and rescue calls.

The Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team is a division of the Santa Monica Fire Department (SMFD) stationed at 2nd and Hollister near Main Street. The team has its own truck, unique equipment and have undergone additional training.

SMFD Captain Patrick Nulty said the team responds to situations such as high angle rope rescues (often used when setting up a rope system to go down the side of the bluffs), structural collapses (from an earthquake, construction site or impact), confined space rescues such as individuals trapped in a manhole or excavation work that might involve trenches.

He said the most common call is probably a vehicle that has hit a building during a traffic incident and the USAR team is needed to secure the structure before the vehicle can be removed. Two such incidents have occurred in recent months including a vehicle striking the Civic Center’s parking structure and a car striking a home near Pearl/Cloverfield. The team also recently responded to a rope rescue along the bluffs in Palisades Park.

“These specialized skills and equipment are being used year-round,” said Nulty.

To qualify for the unit, firefighters must take additional training courses that provide the basic skills for each rescue type. The team undertakes regular weekly training in Santa Monica and organizes a quarterly drill to practice specialized skills.

The Santa Monica team is on call for rescues throughout the Los Angeles area.

“We are considered a regional resource,” said Nulty. “We can be requested and respond anywhere in Southern California for any type of incident.”

On Monday, the team was called to Downtown Santa Monica when an elderly woman accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake, leaving her car dangling five floors above the street. The car itself broke through some of the safety cables but was held in place by others that had slipped over the top of the vehicle and were holding down the back end preventing it from toppling out.

The driver was helped from the vehicle by a passerby and was uninjured.

City Hall said the cable guardrails in Parking Structure 5 did their job and stopped the car from going over the edge. Officials said the City regularly inspects the rails for functionality and to ensure they are structurally sound. Additionally, a capital improvement project to update the guardrail system in all five public structures is underway and should be ready for implementation in the next six months.