Building Collapse Rescue: Operational Considerations

Although there has been recent development of new equipment that has made a significant improvement in how building collapse rescue operations are resolved, the strategy and tactics of the collapse rescue operational plan that we use today can be traced...

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As in other special operations, it is extremely important to have an outside resource list in place for specialized equipment and personnel that are not available from within the fire department. Strong consideration to utilize part (or all) of the assets on the list should begin early in the operation (during the survey/assessment phase). The following speciality areas should be included on the list: structural engineers, architects, practical shoring engineers, utility company contacts (for emergency operations and also for readily available heavy construction equipment), demolition contractors (with an itemized list of heavy equipment available), search dogs, sources for immediate delivery of lumber for shoring, technical advisors (for example, personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Urban Search And Rescue Task Forces), and other municipal departments (such as the highway department for heavy equipment).

Signed contracts and agreements between the fire department/city government and these private contractors should be in place (and periodically updated) so that there is no delay in providing emergency services (due to misunderstanding or billing questions at the collapse site).

This is the stage of the operation where needs are projected for the entire duration. Due to the extended "reflex time" required to get certain resources on the site, it is standard practice to request the response of certain outside resources immediately upon assessment, even though these resources will not be used until the third or fourth stages of the operational plan.

As the survey/assessment phase switches into the "action" phases, the search and removal of victims on the surface (and also those victims who can be easily extricated from minor debris entanglement near the surface) of the collapse site is now accomplished. According to statistics, half of the people rescued from collapsed buildings are found during this stage.


After the first stage is completed, all voids (spaces and crevices throughout the rubble) should be identified and searched. About 25% of victims are found during this phase. There are four major types of collapse patterns.

  • Pancake collapse void. Floors fall as a unit and fall in a stacking effect on top of each other. Victims are usually found between floors or in voids created by furniture or machinery.
  • V-shaped collapse void. The floor breaks near the center and falls to the floor below while still attached to the exterior walls, forming a "V."
  • Supported lean-to collapse void. The floor fails at one end and stays anchored at the other end.
  • Unsupported lean-to collapse void. Sometimes called lean-to cantilever collapse void, this is similar to a supported lean-to collapse, with the following important exception: the failed end hangs with no solid support, creating the most unstable and dangerous type of collapse. The potential for secondary collapse is significant; the unsupported floor area must carefully be secured and stabilized.
Photo by Dan Quimby
This stabilizes the involved areas and reduces the risk for firefighters operating in collapse voids.

At this point, a determination should be made as to whether the operation will proceed as a rescue operation or a body recovery. If it is determined to be a rescue, then the time factor becomes critical, and rescuers could expect to be exposed to a certain amount of calculated risk. If it is a body recovery, time is no longer a controlling factor, and risk to firefighters is not acceptable. "Rescue vs. recovery" is one of the most critical decisions the incident commander has to make.

The type of building construction involved will have a significant impact on this decision due to the fact that the type of building materials involved will dictate the types of tools required, and the specific tactics for the extrication of victims. Most importantly, it will dictate the time required to complete the task.

Although monitoring for secondary collapse must occur throughout all four stages of the operational plan, it is mandatory that it occurs during the void search phase. This is accomplished by assigning at least one member to closely monitor the area(s) involved. This position is usually augmented by another member who will use a builder's transit to detect any movement in the portion of the building (or exposures) still standing. Any visual changes are then immediately communicated to the incident commander, and the operational plan is adjusted accordingly.

Locating Buried Victims

One of the most challenging aspects of collapse operations is locating buried victims. This is critical because efforts spent in shoring and breaching operations in the wrong area will waste valuable time and resources and unnecessarily fatigue the rescuers. Four main methods are employed.