Collapse Rescue 101: Initial Recon of the Structural Collapse Event

For the initial incident commander of a significant structural collapse event, there is a multitude of decisions and assignments to make.


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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.

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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.

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