First Due to a Building Collapse

Michael Daley offers an overview of steps that should be taken by a first arriving company at a building collapse. Incident management and collapse types are also reviewed.


Today’s emergency responders find themselves responding to a more diverse assortment of alarms than ever, so it would not be uncommon for initial-responding units to find themselves “first due” to a reported structural collapse. Without proper training and preparation, these responders will find themselves inadequately prepared for this type of operation. This article addresses the potential for a building collapse/compromise event in your own community, describes tactical and strategic considerations for the collapse response and defines the phases of collapse rescue and how to bring the incident to a successful conclusion.

It is important to understand the need for thorough planning for this type of response. Structural collapses are not a normal, everyday occurrence for most responders. This alone sets up an opportunity for catastrophic injury, as rescuers are more prone to injury while performing skills that they do not use regularly, at incidents that they do not train on regularly. Many firefighters are of the mindset that, since the potential to respond to a collapse incident in their jurisdiction is minimal at best, the need for thorough training in this category is minimal as well. In fact, the rarity of this type of event helps to confirm the need for more training in this discipline. This lack of, or inadequate level of, training, can be linked to a number of on-scene issues:

• Failure of the Incident Command System (ICS). The incident commander must control the response and operations. Should a collapse occur after initial units are on scene (i.e., resulting from a fire), the potential of responder loss may create chaos.

• Freelancing. A large number of rescuers will be needed on scene, performing a variety of tasks, including search, air monitoring, medical triage and shoring. With a high risk of changing conditions, it is important to stay accountable for all rescuers operating.

• Hazardous materials presence. Rescuers who are operating at a collapse can become complacent about their surroundings while focusing on their tasks at hand. Collapses at occupancies with a high hazmat potential (such as hardware stores, plumbing supply stores and agricultural supply stores) will serve as an additional hazard as rescuers work their way through a rubble pile.

• Communications overload. Many agencies have the capability to talk on many different frequencies, but the reality is that some agencies cannot talk with other disciplines that are on-scene (fire, EMS, police and other responders). There has to be a plan to handle on-scene communications. There also will be rescuers who have to fight for air time when a frequency becomes overloaded. There should be multiple channels for different operations to communicate on, but there should also be interoperability between each, so communications between rescuers can occur.

• Self-converging resources. It is not uncommon for units to self-dispatch to the “big one,” especially if it is a local incident. A well-planned response protocol will help to confirm the right resources will be called to the incident when they are needed to respond. Furthermore, these incidents can run through multiple operational periods. If all of the local resources are depleted during the initial response, there will not be an ample supply for the next operational period.

Why buildings collapse

Structures are built with two primary objectives: to resist gravity and resist wind shear. In his book Building Construction for the Fire Service, the late Frank Brannigan wrote of the “Gravity Resistance System” that is designed into each structure. It is the combination of all of the structural elements and their connections that support the structure and direct these forces back into the ground. This “system” is the design result that keeps the structure from failing under ordinary, everyday usage.

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