Collapse Rescue 101: Scene Safety Risk/Benefit Analysis

"Box 1812; for the building collapse, Rescue 1 and the collapse support unit respond to assist. Units on scene report a large shopping mall with a partial collapse in the underground tunnel area".

As the officer in charge of a rescue company assigned as a response resource to mitigate structural collapse incidents, being able to perform a risk / benefit analysis enables you to keep your personnel safe as well as mitigate the incident. This analysis is a step by step process that begins well before the alarm and continues until the equipment and your personnel are returned to service.

The first and most basic step in developing your resource is to perform a community analysis that looks at your specific response district and the construction types you respond to. The results of this analysis will tell you where you need to develop your collapse resource. For example, if your response district is primarily residential, there is no need to fully equip for heavy reinforced concrete. Another step is to survey the surrounding jurisdictions to determine their ability to mitigate these incidents. Many large departments are equipping collapse rescue teams that are quicker to deploy locally than the federal US&R teams. (see below) Be sure to find out if they can (and will) respond outside their district to assist. Pre-arranged mutual-aid agreements need to be in place well before the event.

"Command to Rescue 1, we have a column in the tunnel next to the loading dock that has been displaced by a truck. The driver is still trapped and it appears the beam above the column is damaged. We need you to shore that up so we can continue the extrication. Also, mall security advises the stores located above the impact area are still occupied. Do you recommend evacuation?"

Response and mitigation of collapse incidents requires the assistance of many agencies over and above the usual fire department contacts. These can include:

  • Structural engineers. Either from local government or private industry, engineers are an invaluable asset. They give the incident commander trained, professional advice on how to make buildings safe.

  • Heavy equipment, from local public works departments or private contractors. Make sure they can provide qualified operators. Many firefighters will claim they are qualified operators, but unless they actually do this for a living, get the equipment with operators if possible.

  • Lumber yards. Most collapse rescue operations require shoring and unless your department can afford to stock thousands of dollars of pneumatic shoring, lumber is the way to go. There is also no need to stockpile hundreds of feet of pressure treated lumber. Establish a list of recommended lumber with your local yard or supplier and be able to make contact 24/7.

  • Equipment rental companies. If your department cannot afford to stock some of the larger tools and equipment, make an arrangement with local rental companies to get this to the scene. One note of caution, do not make the incident scene the first time personnel use some of this equipment. Regularly scheduled training and continuing education sessions are a vital part of safely mitigating any response.

  • Search dogs. They can be an invaluable asset, especially in a large-scale collapse or a multi-building scenario. Make sure the dogs are trained for search and not the typical police dog. You can only imagine what would happen to a trapped person if the dog was only trained for apprehension!

  • Physicians / Nurses. Extended extrications may require advanced EMS care "in the hole". Depending on local protocol, this may require physicians to be dispatched to the scene to administer the care, and in the worst case scenario, perform an amputation.

  • FEMA National US&R teams. These large, fully equipped search and rescue teams can be a great resource to the incident commander. Research and locate the nearest team to your jurisdiction and determine the travel time. Make sure you include the 4-6 hour mobilization time for the team to muster, then add in the travel time. Requesting FEMA US&R resources are dictated by federal and state policies. For your local protocols, contact your state emergency operations center. For further information go to

All of these assets (and there can be more) need to be contacted well before the event. Coordination with them and having made previous contacts will help mitigate the incident more efficiently and will also provide for a better margin of safety for your personnel.


Upon arrival, start the scene safety requirements. Stage incoming units at least 100' away from the scene. Have all sources of vibration shut down for at least 500', this includes stopping traffic on highways, stopping rail service or subway, and heavy equipment operating within this perimeter. Assistance from local law enforcement will be key for this to be successful. If this is a construction site, locate the site supervisor and begin the fact-finding.

  • Number of personnel missing
  • Last known location
  • Utility issues
  • Probable cause of the collapse
  • If arriving after other units are on scene, locate the incident commander and get this briefing.

After gathering this information, and anything else pertinent to the event, start the risk/benefit analysis.

There is no need to risk personnel by sending them into a collapse site if they have no way of mitigating or making a difference in the outcome of the event. If you are on the scene of a large reinforced concrete building collapse and your personnel are only trained to the awareness level (NFPA 1670) what possible good would it do to risk them in a rescue attempt? This part of the risk/benefit analysis is possibly one of the hardest decisions an incident commander has to make. The first priority for the incident commander is the safety of their personnel.

In other words, never let your ego interrupt a good decision.

"Rescue 1 to command, the structural engineer advises there is no need to evacuate the mall. He did advise we should shore the column prior to the completion of the extrication. Please advise when the lumber arrives so we can finish the cribbing. We are constructing a 6" x 6" box crib around the damaged column, our estimated time of completion is 30 minutes. The patient remains stable, EMS has established an IV and is administrating medication per their protocol".

Performing a risk / benefit analysis is a detailed process on a collapse rescue response. The incident commander needs all pertinent information so he/she can make an informed decision that will provide the best level of safety for their personnel and mitigate the incident efficiently. Making contacts with the outside agencies well before the event will improve the response time and minimize the risk to your personnel. Doing a community analysis, coupled with a department needs assessment, will allow the incident commander to make the best decision possible.

Next month: The initial reconnaissance