Collapse Rescue 101: Initial Recon of the Structural Collapse Event

Photo By Robert Dube
Identifying the type of collapse assists the IC in making assignments. This structure has some pancake, along with a cantilever.

For the initial incident commander of a significant structural collapse event, there is a multitude of decisions and assignments to make. After ensuring the scene is secure (working with local law enforcement) it is imperative the Incident Commander gain as much information about the collapse as possible. The best way to accomplish this is by assigning a "recon" team. There are many functions this team can deliver for the IC, including:

Overall scene dimensions / site sketch:

It is important for the incident commander to have a feel for the size of the event. If available, use of a digital camera would give clear pictures and start the documentation process. At minimum, an outline and sketch of the area needs to be done. If the IC has yet to "acquire" an aide, now is the time!

Critical hazards: (including hazardous materials)

Identifying, and calling for, the resources needed to mitigate critical hazards needs to be done as soon as possible. Utility companies, hazardous materials teams, and any other resources needed should be requested as soon as possible. One hazard on structural collapse events that is not normally a concern of the fire department is control of water. Broken water lines can be as hazardous as gas and electric.

Photo By Robert Dube
Buildings marking and checking for hazardous materials are both an important function of the recon team.

Identification of immediate rescue needs:

In a structural collapse response it is more functional to keep the recon (search) team separate from the rescue team. When the recon team teams identify an immediate rescue, they should contact incident command (or operations if the ICS is established) and have a rescue team sent to the site. They will need to be specific as to the degree of entrapment, medical issues, etc. This is not to say the recon team ignores lightly trapped victims, they need to reassure them help is on the way and take care of immediate medical care if required. But the recon team leader must ensure their primary mission is completed. The information they gather will have an immediate impact on the event, giving the incident commander an idea of the scope and magnitude of the collapse rescue problem.

Type of construction and collapse:

The recon team must identify the type of construction and the type of collapse. This information will give the incident commander and/or operations chief an idea of what operations they should prepare for. Construction type is identified through pre-planning and familiarity with response districts. Knowing the construction type and your departments' ability to mitigate a collapse in specific types of construction help in the initial formulation of the Incident Action Plan. Types of collapse can vary within the structure.

As outlined in NFPA 1670, the basic types of collapse are:

  • Lean-to: Typically formed when one wall collapses, leaving the floors with limited support.

  • V: When an interior column fails, the floor sections collapse, leaving a V shaped area with the floors still supported, but with compromised connections.

  • Pancake: Complete failure of all connections, causing sections of floor or roof to collapse on top of each other with little or no voids.

  • Cantilever: Similar to a pancake, but with no support on one or more ends.

  • A-Frame: A reversed "V".

Knowing the type of collapse allows the strategy and tactics (Incident action plan - to be covered in future articles) to focus on the ability of the responding resources to concentrate on the area they can do the most. For example: if the first arriving rescue company is only equipped to handle basic cribbing and lightweight construction, there is no need to send them into an area of reinforced concrete that has pancaked. They should be directed to a V or A-frame collapse area. Part of being an effective incident commander is having the ability to make decisions that will have a positive outcome on the event. Letting your rescue company convince you they should be sent to the pancaked area to attempt the spectacular rescue when they would be better served by making less difficult rescues (within their ability) is dangerous and possibly deadly.

Photo By Robert Dube
The recon team needs to identify the overall area of the collapse and make a site sketch and identify the construction type.

Makeup - equipment of a recon team

Keeping in mind that the primary mission of a recon team is to identify possible victim locations, identifying potential hazards, and getting the overall scope of the incident, staffing requirements and equipment for a recon team should mirror these assignments. Staffing levels are typically dictated by the first alarm assignment. There is no need to wait for 10-15 personnel to arrive prior to sending out a recon team, it can be handled by as few as 2, but the optimum number would be 4-5. Obviously, having 5 would make the assignment move faster and safer, but 2 can get the minimum jobs done and allow rescue efforts to start sooner and in a priority order.

The IC needs to ensure there is sufficient number of personnel on-scene to provide RIT coverage for the recon team.

When assigning personnel to a recon team, use experienced firefighters with an officer that has collapse training and/or experience. The recon team concept needs to be practiced and the tools should be familiar to all. While this is not a hard and fast rule, in the area of structural collapse operations, experience is vital to ensure the safety of personnel. Knowledge of building construction, collapse operations, and common sense will go a long way to safely mitigating this incident.

Training is the key, the collapse response should not be the first time the recon team has seen the equipment and worked together!

A minimum equipment list would be as follows:

  • PPE /w portable radios
  • Handlights
  • Pry bar / halligan / sledge hammer
  • Particle masks (APR is preferred)
  • Medical gloves (under work gloves)
  • Small medical kit
  • Basic atmospheric monitor / "Hot Stick" (electricity indicator)
  • Spray paint (for victim locations and building marking - see NFPA 1670)
  • Fire line tape (for hazard marking)
  • Camera (Polaroid or digital)
  • White board w/china marker (for sketch)
  • Paper / pen (waterproof)

If staffing (and your resources allow) other personnel/equipment could include:

  • Search camera (or any fiber optic camera)
  • Acoustic listening device
  • Core drill
  • Search canine (trained for live victim locating - not criminal apprehension)
  • Structural engineer
  • Advanced hazardous material monitoring equipment

Making assignments within the recon team should include:

  • Team leader (can be the recorder if only 2 personnel)
  • Hazard ID specialist(s) (haz-mat, utility, marking)
  • Recorder(s) (sketch, camera)
  • Tool operators (rescue specialists)

The recon process needs to be quick, efficient and thorough. Communicate immediate needs back to the IC as soon as they are identified. Make a site sketch that will allow the IC to have a clear picture of the area and hazards involved. Immediate rescue problems can be handled by the recon team if need be, at least until the arrival of a specific rescue team. This allows them to finish their primary function.

The FEMA US&R teams use a 9-person search and recon team. They have specific equipment and duties as follows:

Search Team Manager

Structures Specialist - completes "Structural/Hazard Evaluation" forms for all assessed structures. Cordons off hazard areas. Provides analysis and advice regarding building stability, shoring and stabilization.

Hazardous Materials Specialist - identifies and cordons off hazardous areas. Provides input to the "Structural/Hazard Evaluation" forms and area/site plan drawings.

(2) Canine Search Specialists - conducts K9 search operations (Hasty and/or Extensive). Marks location of alerts. Communicates results to Search Team Manager.

Technical Search Specialist - conducts electronic search operations to include use of acoustic/seismic listening devices and/or electronic viewing equipment. Marks location of "finds". Communicates results to the Search Team Manager.

Medical Specialist - provides medical assessment and treatment of search/recon team members, canines, and victims located as a result of the search.

(2) Rescue Specialists - provides assistance by carrying equipment, deployment of listening sensors, and drilling holes for visual search devices with core drills, breakers, etc.