Collapse Incident Marking Systems for Structural Triage and Rapid Search Reconnaissance Operations

The daily activities that comprise a typical company's tour of duty may vary greatly dependent upon the size and complexity of their response area and jurisdiction, the frequency of incident alarms and incident types, and the degree of risk potential encountered at incident locations. These incident encounters can be as common as service calls, investigations, ems and rescue calls or as demanding as structural fire alarm assignments, multiple-company working fires or complex heavy rescue operations.

This is in great contrast to the response and operational challenges posed by structural collapse incidents. The response and deployment of companies to structural collapse incidents are one of the most difficult and challenging of incident and rescue assignments likely to be encountered by fire, rescue and emergency services companies and departments. These incidents and their operational and management parameters can quickly overwhelm even the most experienced of agencies, when confronted with the complexities associated with structural collapse search and rescue efforts.

Whether it involves a single site-specific structural collapse or a large scale or region-wide incident with multiple collapsed buildings and compromised structures, the variety of buildings and occupancy types coupled with their variation of structural components and inherent construction and materials systems contributes to a wide degree of operational challenges and tactical demands when associated with conducting a well coordinated and complete search and rescue effort.

Of the numerous tasks and assignments that must be managed and orchestrated during collapse-rescue operations, the coordination and deployment of the search and rescue function becomes a monumental task without a pre-determined system in place that will ensure that all areas of a compromised or collapsed structure have been thoroughly searched. And that a logical, safe and sequential search pattern has been initiated, potential rescue areas with viable trapped victims identified and a measured deployment of resources assigned to carry out these required search and rescue efforts.

Unlike traditional search and rescue assignments involving interior operations conducted during structural fire alarm incidents, whereby various methods may be utilized to identify that an area or room has been searched, collapsed and compromised structures require a specific marking system and procedure that identifies and communicates specific information pertinent to the phase and completeness of tactical search and rescue assignments for each affected building and internal compartment area.

In the wake of post 9.11, the fire and emergency services has gained a clearer perspective and understanding of the magnitude and significant challenges presented in the management of structural collapse [urban search and rescue] operations. Strong, decisive and focused command presence for [US&R] Incident Command Management and resource deployment during the initial twenty-four hours is crucial towards establishing the Incident Action Plan [IAP]. As the magnitude and severity of an incident escalates, and the need for additional strategic and tactical resources becomes identified, the efficiency and effectiveness of initial incident action plans must consider how these task level efforts will flow into the larger, more integrated unified command management system when resources required, beyond the local or regional deployment level begin arriving on-scene and are integrated into the overall plan.

When considering the strategic IAP objectives for Structural Triage Assessment and Rapid Search Reconnaissance, the need for consistencies in methodologies and process demands local level competencies in these basic functional areas. The ability of the local [initial responding] agency to implement standard & recognized Structural Triage Assessment & Rapid Search Reconnaissance tactics and to utilize a designated marking system that is consistent with the operational procedures of upper tier Special Operations, Technical Rescue and US&R Task Force systems.

The ever increasing attention on Homeland Preparedness, the threat of various venues of terrorism and the realization that no jurisdiction, community or agency is totally isolated or impervious to the effects of direct or collateral challenge, attributed to the resulting affects of a structural collapse incident.

The Fire, Rescue & Emergency Services has acknowledged and taken the steps to increase preparedness, deployment & response capabilities and establish effective and efficient operating procedures that can flow seamlessly as the severity or demands of the incident increase, and external resources, expertise and manpower integrate into the incident management plans.

A designated structural triage, assessment and search marking system for collapse incidents is necessary to denote and ensure that crucial information is disseminated and communicated to search, rescue and support team personnel to enhance personnel safety and to identify priorities, resource deployment and commitments and for the direction or influence of incident management planning, logistics and deployment, for the search and rescue task function.

If initial responding agencies, on the local level are able to implement tactical objectives and assignments that are consistent with the operational procedures of upper tier specialized resources, within the areas specific to Structural Triage Assessment and Rapid Search Reconnaissance, then the effectiveness, efficiency and momentum established by the initial operating teams can be sustained and integrated as the specialized upper tier resources, become deployable for mission specific assignments at the incident scene.

The complete or partial collapse of a building structure or the compromise of inherent structural support systems and associated occupancy spaces may create an incident scene that becomes anything from an indiscernible rubble- pile, topped with the remnants of a partial structure; a degradated multi-story structure who's grade- level entry points now are the upper floors of the building; or a severely compromised structure with partial and complete collapsed floor areas, multiple voids and displaced floor and compartment features.

The need to provide a timely and well coordinated structural triage of the affected building(s) coupled with the initial assessment and hazard evaluation of these structure(s) will enable the incident command management team to identify and prioritize incident parameters and to assess the overall incident magnitude, resource commitment requirements and to initially develop operational deployment and task assignments accordingly. The consistency and use of standardized methodologies will have a profound positive affect, when upper tier resources are deployed and integrated into the unified incident command management system.

At the same time the structural triage assessment and marking system will communicate pertinent information useful to other operating team(s) to ensure efficiency in effort and site coverage, provide safety factors in limiting unnecessary access to a significantly compromised and unsafe structure and towards providing a verifiable method of identification that the area or building has been initially assessed and subsequently searched.

Due to the overwhelming nature of site-specific or area-wide collapse situations, the need for rapid, timely and efficient reconnaissance must be initiated. This initial size-up phase of operational deployment serves the function of assessing and evaluating the structure(s) and conducting a building triage to determine whether viable conditions exist for search and/or rescue operations to be conducted.

The premise of a Rapid Structural Triage is to provide search and rescue teams with;

  • Pertinent information on the structural condition of the building and in general whether a search and rescue operation can proceed with considerations as to the degree of structural and void stabilization required for continued safe operations.

  • In addition, the structural triage serves the purpose of identifying any other hazard situations or conditions that may jeopardize or present risks to search and rescue personnel such as hazardous materials conditions, or other exposure hazards.

For the purpose of this article we will limit our discussions to the methods of marking systems that can be utilized for structural triage and search marking. The specific methodologies and principles of structural triage will be addressed in a forthcoming article.

In general, structural triage consists of a basic three (3) step process consisting of;

  • The concise identification and location of affected collapsed buildings or compromised structures within the incident scene perimeter. This may be easily accomplished if the incident involves a single site-specific structure or may be more complex should it involve numerous structures or expand to all area-wide or region-wide devastated area such as would be found as a result of a hurricane, tornado or earthquake.
  • A rapid assessment of the affected area(s)
  • The identification of potential building(s) that require a more detailed assessment.

Remember that initial structural triage requires rapid reconnaissance. Due to the complexity, size and occupancy type of various structures, those requiring a greater time commitment for assessment should be identified and a determination made by the incident command management team as to prioritization for the further deployment of resources.

The initial structure triage and visual assessment of each building should determine;

  • Structural conditions
  • The probable occupancy type (residential, commercial, retail manufacturing, office, etc.)
  • Identification of obvious access point(s) to the interior compartments and areas of the building.

The rapid structural triage will also serve to identify and provide assessment factors for the development of priority plans for deployment of resources to determine the commitment of search and rescue teams to the affected area(s).

Cue-Based Strategic Factors

The following factors should be considered in the formalization of strategic incident planning and logistics for tactical deployment of search and rescue team(s) for task operations:

  • Occupancy: This focuses on building usage, not necessarily the potential number of occupants.

  • The Collapse Mechanism: Assessment and identification of how the building failed, the causal factors that contributed towards the collapse and the resultant factors that may indicate the presence of potential void spaces where a victim(s) may be trapped.

  • Time of Day: When combined with the occupancy type and the actual time occurrence of the structural collapse, this correlation will represent the projected degree of possible victim(s) and the commitment requirements for search and rescue resource deployments.

  • Scene Intelligence: Information and data gathering from self-extricated, surface removed or periphery civilians, who may have information relating to known trapped or unaccounted for occupants.

  • Search and Rescue Resource Availability: What are the requirements for resource deployment and commitment for the affected collapsed building(s); are they readily available, what degree of heavy equipment is needed for access/stabilization; is the commitment and deployment profile beyond the capabilities of the jurisdiction and operating agencies?

  • Structural Condition of the Building: Can the deployment and assignment of search and rescue team(s) proceed with minimal stabilization efforts and time commitments? What will the degree of inherent operating risk factors be?

Structural Assessment and Triage Marking

The structural assessment and triage marking system that would be utilized will consist of a 2'x2' square box that would be spray painted at any entrance accessible for entry into a collapsed and/or compromised structure. The FEMA National USAR Task Force system has standardized on the use of aerosol spray paint consisting of international orange as the method for marking system identification. A complete perimeter sweep should be conducted for all assessed entry points, so that the deployment of search and rescue teams approaching the affected structure, regardless of their approach or perimeter positioning will have readily identifiable information visible and discernable.

The following represents the Structural Triage Marking procedure;

The square 2' x 2' box is made at an area immediately adjacent to the entry point identified as safe. An arrow is placed next to the box indicating the direction of the safe entrance point IF, the marking must be made somewhat remote from the actual safe entrance.

Structure is accessible and safe for search and rescue operations.
Damage is minor with little danger of further collapse.
Structure is significantly damaged. Some areas are relatively safe, but other areas may require shoring, bracing or removal of falling and collapse hazards.
  • The structure may be completely pancaked.
Structure is not safe for search and rescue operations and may be subjected to sudden secondary collapse. Remote search operations may proceed at significant personal risk.
  • If rescue operations are undertaken, safe havens of refuge and rapid/immediate evacuation routes should be created during operations.
Arrow located next to a marking box indicates the direction to the safe entry point. This is utilized should the need for placement of the marking box be made remote from the indicated entry point.
Indicates that a hazardous materials condition exists in or adjacent to the structure or area. Search and Rescue Team(s) may be at risk.
  • Considerations for further operations must be made with requirements or HazMat operations, personal protection levels consistent with the hazard(s) and mitigation and control factor considerations.
  • The identified or assumed hazard may also be noted.
The upper right-hand side of the marking box is the designated location for information consisting of Time, Date and Team/Personnel conducting the structural triage assessment.
  • This information would be made utilizing either;
    • a piece of carpenter's
    • chalk or lumber crayon.
    • Or by applying a piece of duct tape to the area and detailing the information with a grease pencil or black marking pen.

A completed Structural Triage/Assessment Mark on a collapsed structure with completed information illustrated would be depicted as follows;


This marking illustrates and conveys information that:

  • The safe entry point is located above the boxed mark, possibly a window or upper floor area.

  • The single diagonal slash across the box indicated the structure/area may require some level of shoring or bracing prior to commencing search and rescue operations.

  • The structural Triage/Assessment was made on October 20th, 2002 at 02:30 hours (a.m.)

  • There is an identifiable or apparent indication of a Hazardous Materials (HM) concern or risk consisting of propane gas within the vicinity.

  • The assessment was made by Rescue Team No. 21 (RST-21)

Any subsequent mitigation of the hazard(s) by follow-up teams, the marking would be altered to reflect the change in conditions. Thusly, the HM - propane designation, upon mitigation would be altered with a single strike through the marking and a new time, date and team designator applied to the marking indicator.


Search Marking System

As with the Structural Triage and Assessment Marking System, the implementation and utilization of a designated Search Marking Method must be conspicuously made during Search Operations.

The search assessment marking system is separate and distinct from the structural triage marking system and is meant to provide information the denotes;

  • potential victim location(s) in affected searched areas and,
  • compartments within the collapsed/compromised structure.

The search marking system utilizes an "X" that is 2' x 2' in size and is made with international orange colored spray paint.

The "X" designation is made in a Two Phase Process during search operations.

  • The first diagonal slash is conspicuously made and drawn upon initial entry into the structure, room, compartment or interior operations area.

    • This serves to denote that a search team entry has been made and that search efforts are currently being undertaken within the affected area.

  • Upon the completion of the search activities within the affected area, personnel exiting the area draw a second alternate diagonal thru the first slash, indicating the team is out of the area and the search has been completed for that space.

This serves two distinct purposes;

It identifies that the area has been searched during the tasked operations, and that search personnel have exited the compartment. Should a secondary collapse occur or other condition present itself that either traps or restricts the search teams exiting from the space, secondary rescue teams deployed to locate and account for the missing search team can quickly determine the last point of entry made by the search team in order to focus and isolate the likely area of last contact with those personnel. Thus increasing their chances for survival in the event of their inability to get out on their own.

The Search Marking System also denotes search status information and findings identified at the time of the search efforts. These findings are denoted within the four (4) quadrants of the "X" designation and provide crucial information for the deployment and subsequent operations of rescue efforts to be initiated by the appropriate team(s).

The Search Marking System is illustrated in sequence as follows:

Initial Entry
A single diagonal slash is drawn upon entry into a collapsed structure or specific room or compartment area.
  • This indicates that initial search operations are currently underway and in progress by personnel.
Exiting of Affected Area
An alternate crossing diagonal slash is drawn completing the "X" after completion of the area search by personnel at such time they exit the affected area or structure.
  • This indicates that the personnel are out of the area and the initial search has been completed.
Left Quadrant Information Status:
This consists of the team identifier that completed the search task assignment.
Top Quadrant:
The time of day and date that the search was completed is indicated at the top quadrant of the "X" marking.
Right Quadrant:
Specific personal hazards are denoted within this area. They could consist of personal hazards such as rats, utility hazards such as water, waste, electrical etc, or other identified conditions.
Bottom Quadrant:
The bottom quadrant denotes crucial information relative to identified victim considerations. This would include numbers of live and dead victims still inside the affected area (compartment) or structure.
  • The notation of "0" would indicate no apparent victims present.

Even though the preferable marking method is the use of international orange colored spray paint, in the absence or due to limited resource supplies, the use of carpenter's chalk, duct tape and/or grease pencils and black markers similar to the procedures for structural triage can be utilized for information status denotation. This procedure of Search Marking would be utilized and marked as all areas of the collapsed/affected structure are searched.

Search teams may chose to also use surveyors tape to flag or denote specific trapped victim locations or potential areas that rescue efforts should be undertaken in order to efficiently expedite the rescue and extrication process. As additional search efforts or hazard assessments are undertaken within the collapsed/affected areas of the structure, previous search markings should be crossed out and a new marking placed next to it, with the most recent and current situation status denoted.

During the Structural Triage and Rapid Search Reconnaissance, the potential to identify the location of apparent or actual known victims, [live or deceased], may be present. Specific victim location markings will further the actual tactical search and subsequent rescue/recover efforts as prioritized resource deployment and IAP objectives are formalized. It should be noted that the actual location of these victim(s) may not accurately known due to debris piles, degree of entombment and other limiting site collapse conditions, however, apparent or suspected indicators, such as emanating sounds, voice contact etc., may be present. Although this function is more precisely cared out by the Search Team Function, during the Structural Triage and Rapid Search Reconnaissance, this noted information may increase effectiveness of the search and subsequent rescue efforts.


A large 2 ft. "V" is painted near the area of the known or apparent victim. An arrow may be added next to the "V" pointing towards the actual or suspected location, if the location is not clearly visible or readily apparent. The team designator would then be placed at the top of the "V".

If, there is some degree of confirmation that a victim is confirmed to be present, through the variety of immediate means available, then a circle is placed around the "V" which would be indicative of a high probability of a victim present. This "circle" confirmation may also be completed when victim is actually located during the search function when partial debris has been removed.


A horizontal line is painted through the "V" when the victim is confirmed to be deceased. A painted "X" is sprayed through the confirmation marking, after all victims have been removed from the specific area/location that were identified by the original marking(s). New victim marking symbols are added as search and rescue operations are undertaken and victim(s) located in subsequent stages of the operations, if the original symbol has been "X"ed out.

Specific search and rescue coordination procedures and methods have been purposely omitted here, as the focus of this article has been on marking system procedures and methods, however considerations should be made to account for these efforts and incident management logistics and planning. We will address these procedures in a future forthcoming article.

These search marking patterns in conjunction with the structural triage marking system will ultimately assist in the timely and safe deployment of search and rescue teams assigned to entry, search, void penetration and subsequent victim removal and extrication efforts within the designated collapsed areas.

A systematic approach to these search and rescue efforts coupled with the use of an appropriate marking system can greatly reduce the inherent risk factors present at collapse scene operations and increase the overall management of incident search and rescue priorities, resource deployment and operational planning and logistics.

The need to provide a timely and well coordinated structural triage of affected building(s), coupled with the initial assessment and hazard evaluation of these structure(s) will enable incident command management to;

  • identify and prioritize incident parameters and
  • to assess the overall incident magnitude, resource commitment requirements
  • to initially develop operational deployment and task assignments accordingly.
  • The consistency and use of standardized methodologies during the initial twenty-fire hour window of operations will have a profound positive affect, when upper tier resources are deployed and integrated into the unified incident command management system, as extended operations become implemented.

The Structural Triage Assessment& Rapid Search Reconnaissance information and procedures presented, have been developed and were originally formulated as a result of the FEMA National US&R Task Force Team Working Group development process, in the early 1990's. These marking system procedures and methods are currently standardized for USAR Task Force operations and are referenced within the FEMA National US&R Task Force Response System Operational Operations Manual. These procedures were also originally standardized and implemented within the NFPA 1470 Standard on Search and Rescue Training for Structural Collapse Incidents and were subsequently integrated with the current NFPA 1670 Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Rescue Incidents.

Further technical information on Structural Triage can also be found within previously published editions of FEMA Publication No. 158/ September 1988 on Earthquake Damaged Buildings: An Overview of Heavy Debris and Victim Extrication and FEMA Publication No. 154 and 155/ September 1988, Rapid Visual Screening of Buildings for Potential Seismic Hazards.

Conclusions, "What can I do to better prepare my department?"

  • Determine local and regional Special Operations, US&R, Collapse-Rescue capabilities and identify the gaps that must be addressed to increase response capabilities and reduce operational risk factors & deficiencies.

  • Implement at a minimum NFPA 1670 Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Rescue Incidents; Structural Collapse Awareness Level Training; preferable to the Operational Level for designated companies.

  • Train ALL Company and Command Officers in methodologies for Incident Command Management of Structural Collapse/US&R Incidents. Basic ICM competencies and skills will prove to be deficient when confronted with structural collapse incident operations.

  • Identify and Implement training to increase local jurisdictional capabilities for tactical assignments within basic Structural Triage Assessment& Rapid Search Reconnaissance.

  • Develop training awareness and operational level capabilities for support companies in methodologies in basic Structural Triage Assessment& Rapid Search Reconnaissance.

  • Coordinate local jurisdictional capabilities with Upper Tier county, regional, state and federal agencies responsible for Special Operations, Technical Rescue, US&R, Collapse-Rescue response to ensure compatibility and consistency with Structural Triage Assessment& Rapid Search Reconnaissance procedures.

  • Develop laminated Quick Reference Cards that can be placed in turn out gear as a memory jogger graphically outlining the Structural Triage Assessment& Rapid Search Reconnaissance marking system

  • Stock and maintain supplies of International Orange aerosol spray paint cans on command or specific companies for deployment at collapse operations incidents.

  • Begin to look at structures within your jurisdiction from a structural collapse scenario perspective versus the traditional fire involvement scenario - Look at your presently perceived capabilities & apparent level s of skills, expertise and resources versus the postulated reality of actual resource needs, knowledge, skills and training and manpower that would be necessary to fully integrate an extended site-specific, multiple-area [block(s)] or region-wide structural/urban search and rescue incident. The identified GAPS will open your eyes