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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Four major types of shoring materials or systems are utilized by the fire service: wood, mechanical, pneumatic and hydraulic. Similar to the six-sided approach to the entire building that is taken in the survey/assessment phase, each individual void space where extrication operations take place must be evaluated from the same perspective (top, bottom, front, rear, and both sides). Areas that are of questionable stability must be shored and stabilized.

3. SELECTED DEBRIS REMOVAL

Work in this stage includes the removal of debris according to a pre-determined plan based upon how the floor has fallen, where the victims may have been at the time of collapse, the type of collapse, etc. Many times, this debris removal requires the use of rigging expertise in conjunction with heavy construction equipment such as a backhoe or hydraulic crane.

4. GENERAL DEBRIS REMOVAL

This final phase occurs after all other methods have been employed, persons are still missing and/or their location is still unknown. This task must be accomplished in a systematic, rapid manner. All debris is removed (usually by heavy construction equipment) and taken to a secure area near the collapse site where it is carefully sorted through for bodies or body parts.

Operational Guidelines

A building collapse rescue operation is one of the most demanding incidents a fire department can encounter. Following are some general guidelines for operations at collapse sites:

  • It is safer to reach entrapped victims from above, although consideration may be given to enter a collapsed area from below (for example: where a roof or floor may have fallen, a basement sidewalk entrance door may allow access to a cellar from which the rescuer can enter the building from the outside, then ascend the interior stairs to the specific collapse area).
  • Breaching and shoring (similar to tunneling and trenching) may be required to reach some victims.
  • The cutting of holes in floors and using a "shaft approach" is much safer than the breaching of walls.
  • Do not attempt to return structural components to their original configuration. Stabilize and shore the structure according to the way you find it.
  • Wood (timber) shores should be kept as short as possible.
  • Air shore, hydraulic or mechanical systems can be used in conjunction with or in place of wood (timber) shores.
  • Once shoring is in place, it should never be removed.
  • A safety officer should be designated and assigned for the entire duration of the operation. He should have the authority to stop the operation any time he deems necessary.
  • Consideration should be given to gain access to the basement of a collapsed structure by breaching the party wall of an adjoining building in the same row.
  • Limit the number of firefighters working in the danger zone to the bare minimum required.
  • Utilize a search rope in tunneling/trenching operations. If a secondary collapse occurs, the rope identifies the path to the trapped rescue personnel.
  • Meter readings for oxygen and combustible gas must be taken during tunneling and void space operations. Confined space operational procedures must be adhered to as required.
  • Consideration should be given to utilize supplied air breathing systems (air source, air extension hose, and face masks) in a tunnel or void space where there is a danger of smoke, oxygen depletion, or exhaust fumes (and SCBA duration will be too limited or SCBA will be too bulky in narrow opening of void space).
  • A personnel accountability system should be utilized for firefighters operating in the "hot zone."
  • Hoseline(s) should be stretched into or in the vicinity of each major void space operation, even if fire is not evident upon entry into the void space. Conditions can rapidly change. Fire could be burning undetected underneath the area where you are working, and this precaution will save valuable time if the conditions change.
  • Every collapse incident should be reviewed/analyzed in a post-collapse critique.

Fred Endrikat, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 23-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department, currently assigned as lieutenant of Rescue Company 1. Additionally, he serves as a Task Force Leader for Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1, one of the 27 USAR Task Forces commissioned by the Federal Emergency management Agency (FEMA).