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.


• Fires. The incident commander is faced with two problems at these incidents. The first problem is access to firefighters who may be trapped due to a collapse. The second problem is that the fire still has to be extinguished. Many departments train all of their resources on rescue and none on suppression, with catastrophic results.

It would be wise for departments to perform an “Operational Capability Check” for their jurisdiction to identify their respective collapse potential. Identifying the types of construction in the area, combined with the age of buildings and their usage, will help identify high-risk structures for collapse.

This check includes an inward view of the department’s capabilities. Are members trained to handle these types of emergencies? Does the department have the tools necessary to operate on scene? Can the department handle both single-point responses (i.e., localized collapse) and multiple-point responses (i.e., widespread collapse due to natural disasters, explosions, etc.)? Is there a list of outside agencies and resources that will be needed to respond to the scene (engineers, urban search and rescue teams and equipment suppliers)? Trying to develop the resource list while developing the Incident Action Plan (IAP) is not a good idea.

Managing a response

Let’s look at the response to an actual incident. We can identify five phases of a collapse operation at any given incident:

• 1. Reconnaissance. This phase is one of the most important phases of the operation, if not the most important. This stage sets the pace for the rest of the incident. This phase involves finding out what led to the collapse and can include:

1. Nature of the event (terrorism, structural failure, gas leak, tornado, etc.)

2. Construction type and materials used

3. Use of the building (occupancy)

4. A rough estimate of potential victims (this varies, depending on occupancy)

5. Potential additional hazards

6. Incident scene control

7. Identifying potential survival locations

8. Utility control (local control at first, but start utility company representatives responding in)

9. Fire concern – did the fire cause the collapse or was it secondary to the collapse? Either way, suppression is a constant responsibility and concern at the incident

10. Develop the formal IAP and initiate the Emergency Response Plan (ERP)

It is imperative that all personnel on scene are identified, accounted for and properly assigned based on the priorities of the incident. The ERP should have already identified who is responding; now all that needs to be done is to assign them. Before being deployed, crews attend a safety briefing that includes the following:

Lookouts. These are safety officers whose critical functions include identifying potentially dangerous conditions and determining how to mitigate these issues.

Communications. The formal plan including what channels each division or group will be operating on. There should also be an agreed-on method of evacuation and make sure everybody knows it.

Escape routes. A pre-established path to an area of safety is chosen prior to entering. Considering scene dynamics; this route may change as conditions do.

Safe havens. Identify an area of safety immediately. This could be within the “hot zone” and must be passed on to everyone working in the area, especially during changes at the end of operational periods.

• 2. Surface area rescue. Initial responders may be faced with multiple victims at the surface who may be incapacitated, walking wounded, lightly entrapped or fatally injured. Removing these victims takes priority, but further evaluation of the pile, along with searching for possible victim locations, should be going on at the same time.

• 3. Void search. Areas where survivability may be more likely include closets, under stairs in basements and cellars, rooms with blocked exits, loose piles of debris and voids created by the collapse. Furniture and belongings that were in the structure before the collapse can serve as load-bearing supports for debris, creating voids in which victims may seek refuge. Rescuers and technical experts will be constructing emergency shoring in the areas that they enter and building them in victim locations to assist in disentanglement operations inside the void spaces.