Building Collapse Operations Training

At a large-scale training exercise, the Philadelphia Fire Department, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, hosted a three-day urban search and rescue (USAR) training program.

Photo by Stan Wybranski
A technical search specialist uses a fiber-optic search camera to view an enclosed void space at the collapse site.

Participating in this exercise was Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1, one of 26 task forces commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). High-profile examples at which similar USAR task forces have been deployed include the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and at earthquakes in California.

Pennsylvania USAR Task Force 1 is comprised of approximately 150 members drawn from participating agencies (fire departments and medical and emergency management agencies) throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland. Administration of the task force is accomplished through a program manager from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

The training program began with the breakdown of the task force into four major groups: Rescue component, Search component, Medical component and Technical component. Rescue specialists and their component managers went through a comprehensive set of six practical stations that included vertical and horizontal concrete cutting and breaching, interior and exterior shoring operations, metal cutting, and a lifting and rigging station. A wide variety of tools was extensively used on all stations to increase skills proficiency.

The Search component was further broken down into two groups canine search specialists and technical search specialists. Search dogs specifically trained for building collapse operations and their handlers worked on a specially constructed agility course and at an off-site collapsed building. Technical search specialists worked with acoustic search equipment and fiber-optic search cameras designed to locate buried victims.

The Medical component of the team (consisting of specially trained doctors and paramedics) went through classroom and practical training stations involving confined space medical considerations, patient packaging and the treatment of "crush-syndrome" injuries.

Photo by Stan Wybranski
Task force members work near the opening to a series of void spaces in one of the six identified work areas at the collapse site.


Photo by Stan Wybranski
Box-cribbing is used to shore an opening to a void space at the site of the collapsed high-rise buildings.


Photo by Stan Wybranski
Rescue specialists gain access to a void space. Concrete cutting/breaching, metal rebar cutting, shoring operations and confined space patient packaging were required to remove a "victim" who was located approximately 30 feet inside the collapsed structure.


Photo by Stan Wybranski
A search dog trained to locate buried victims at collapses works at the training site.


The Technical component of the task force is comprised of specialists in the following fields: structural engineering, hazardous materials, heavy equipment and rigging, technical information, communications and logistics. This component participated in classroom and practical training evolutions in their individual specialized disciplines.

Following the first day and a half of classroom and practical training at the Philadelphia Fire Academy, the task force was transported to a Philadelphia Housing Authority property site where three 13-story high-rise residential buildings had recently been imploded and demolished.

Photo by Stan Wybranski
Vertical concrete breaching and cutting stations at the Philadelphia Fire Academy were set up to allow firefighters to improve their skills on a variety of hydraulic-, gasoline- and electric-powered rescue equipment.


Photo by Stan Wybranski


Photo by Stan Wybranski


Photo by Stan Wybranski


The buildings were constructed of reinforced concrete frames, brick masonry cladding and internal concrete-block partition walls. The task force was then challenged with a unique and realistic full-scale building collapse operation at this site.

Six separate void areas within the collapsed buildings (where "victims" would be placed) were identified prior to the exercise. The overall structural safety issues relating to the entire site and each void area were addressed by one of the task force's specially trained structural engineers in two inspections of the site prior to the training program and throughout the exercise.

The task force was then broken down into individual teams and deployed to the six identified void areas. Fiber-optic search cameras, canine search teams and acoustical listening devices were used to locate buried victims in the voids. Emergency shoring operations then took place to stabilize the void space areas involved. Extensive concrete and metal cutting and breaching were used to gain access to the buried victims. A hydraulic crane on site assisted in lifting and rigging needs. As victims were located, medical component personnel implemented emergency medical procedures, packaging and removal of the victims from confined space voids.

Realistic training situations such as this greatly increase the skills required to resolve building collapse rescue operations and ensure that the fire service is better prepared to handle actual incidents. Although this particular exercise involved one of the commissioned FEMA USAR task forces, effective building collapse training evolutions can be arranged by individual fire departments on a local or regional (such as mutual-aid) level.

Training does not have to occur on such a large scale to be effective. Although collapse operations do not occur as frequently as fireground situations, the potential exists for every fire department to encounter a collapse operation at any time. Smaller-scale, separate component training (for example, shoring operations or concrete cutting and breaching) sessions can be done in a cost-effective and interesting format to better prepare firefighters to resolve situations for which they must be fully prepared.

Fred Endrikat, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant and 22-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department, assigned to Rescue Company 1. He also is a Task Force Leader for Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force 1.