Today's emergency responder will find themselves responding to a more diverse assortment of alarms. It would not be uncommon for initial responding units to find themselves "first due" to a reported structural collapse. Without proper training and preparation, these responders will find themselves inadequately prepared for this type of operation. This month, we will focus our attention on collapse planning and preparation, common safety issues, collapse assessment, and response considerations.
It is important to understand the need for thorough planning for this type of response. Structural collapses are not a normal, everyday occurrence for most responders. This alone sets up an opportunity for catastrophic injury, as rescuers are more prone to injury while performing skills that they do not use regularly, at incidents that they do not train on regularly. Most people are of the mindset that, since the potential to respond to a collapse incident in their jurisdiction is minimal at best, the need for thorough training in this category is minimal as well. In fact, the rarity of this type of event helps to confirm the need for more training in this discipline (see Photo 1). This lack of, or inadequate level of training, can be linked to a number of on-scene issues:
Failure of the Incident Command System: The dynamic intensity of the scene will overwhelm an inexperienced officer, and it is up to the incident commander (IC) to keep control of the incident. Moreover, should the collapse happen after initial units are on scene (for example: resulting from a fire), the potential of responder injury or loss will certainly create a chaotic scene for the IC.
Freelancing: A large amount of rescuers will be a necessity on scene, performing a variety of tasks, including search, air monitoring, medical triage, and fire suppression, just to name a few. With a high risk of changing conditions on-scene, it is important to stay accountable for all rescuers operating on scene (see Photo 2).
Hazardous Materials Presence: Rescuers who are operating at a collapse can become complacent of their surroundings while focusing on their tasks at hand. Collapses at occupancies with a high hazmat potential (hardware stores, plumbing supply stores, agricultural supply stores) will serve as an additional hazard as rescuers are working their way through the rubble pile.
Communication Overload: Many agencies have the capability to talk on a variety of different frequencies. The reality is that there are some agencies nationwide that cannot talk with other disciplines that are on-scene (law, fire and EMS). There has to be a plan to handle the on-scene communications. Secondly, there will be rescuers that will have to fight for air time when a frequency gets overloaded. There should be multiple channels for different operations to communicate on, but there should also be interoperability between each, so communications between rescuers can occur.
Self-converging Resources: It is not uncommon for units to self-dispatch to the "big one," especially if it is a local incident. A well planned response protocol will help to confirm the right resources will be called to the incident, when they are needed to respond. Furthermore, these incidents can run through multiple operational periods. If all of the local resources are depleted during the initial response, there will not be an ample supply for the next operational period.
Structures are built with two primary objectives in mind: to resist gravity and resist wind shear. In his book, Building Construction for the Fire Service, Frank Brannigan wrote of the "Gravity Resistance System" that is designed into each structure. It is the combination of all of the structural elements and their connections that support the structure, and direct these forces back into the Earth (see Photo 3). This "system" is the design result that keeps the structure from failing under ordinary, everyday usage. To understand this system, a rescuer must have a solid knowledge of building construction. This is of paramount importance. This knowledge helps responders predict smoke and fire behavior; predict how the structure will behave when it is compromised; identify potential rescue problems on scene; types of construction materials that will have to be breached; heavy structural components that will have to be moved; and predict occupant and utility locations (see Photo 4).