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LCES during Building Collapse Response

Issue 8 and Volume 6.

The following sidebar accompanies the article “Andy Speier’s Experience at Ground Zero,” which reflects on his work at Ground Zero after 9/11. Read the article here.

You are the officer of a fire apparatus responding to a report of a collapsed building. Due to recent weather-related and terrorist-related building collapses, many thoughts race through your head. The safety of your members and other initial responders will fall on your shoulders during the initial portion of the response. How do you deploy personnel and protect them from hazards at the same

The “rubber band” that runs through your cerebral hard drive may not be prepared for the torque and strain that you may place on it if you don’t figure out how to stay on track and organized. In other words, you need a safety plan to help you deploy personnel during the initial phases of the incident. Following are four major components that should be included in any plan when responding to collapsed structures.

1. Lookouts
The lookout position is usually assigned to a safety officer or team leader because it requires someone who’s not assigned to the tactical operation to stay “hands off” so they can pay attention to radio traffic and look at the larger picture of the operation, as well as rescue operations going on above and below them.
You as the incident commander may be the initial lookout, but it’s easy to become overwhelmed and/or distracted from the task. In some cases, an engine apparatus driver may serve as the lookout, but they must first finish pulling hoselines and establishing a water supply. Ideally, the lookout should be a rescue-trained member, not only so they can observe, but also because they should be trained in the techniques that are being deployed and should have an understanding of the hazards associated with working at a building collapse.

Depending on the size and scope of the incident, you may need to have an incident safety officer as well as a site-specific safety officer on scene. Persons performing these tasks should be identifiable by their radio designation as well as their vest or helmet shield. They should also use a pre-printed Safety Officer’s Tactical Worksheet.

2. Communications
Arriving units should be aware of the tactical frequency that will be used. If switching to a different frequency, all units need to acknowledge the change.
In the event of a problem at the work site, an Emergency Alerting System should be used. For example, when using an air horn or a whistle, consider the following strategy:

  • Three short blasts (1-second duration) = Evacuate
  • One long blast (3-second duration) = Cease operations
  • One long blast and one short blast = Resume operations

Your dispatch center should be able to use a tone alerter over the air. If operating out of the range of a dispatch center, two portable radios can be held next to each other while the transmit button on one is pushed. This will create a loud feedback sound that can function as an alerter tone. This technique can also be used to locate missing members in the event of a collapse.

3. Escape Routes
Prior to committing to working in a specific area, you must establish a path to an area of safe refuge. Note: The area may need to be shored before it can be considered safe.

As the rescue scene is ever-changing, the escape route plan will need constant updating. All personnel should be advised of the escape route at their safety briefing and whenever the route is changed. If the plan is changed via radio, all personnel must acknowledge the change. If an escape route is needed as soon as possible, roll-call should be conducted.

4. Safety Zones
Escape routes lead to safety zones, or pre-established areas that are safe from the hazards of falling debris, dropped equipment and whatever else you may be dealing with. It can be an area outside the hot zone or an agreed-upon area within the hot zone; however, if the area is inside the hot zone, and there’s no designated area outside the hot zone, you may have to construct one.  

If a victim is trapped inside a collapsed structure, rescuers will crib and shore the work area to protect the crews and the victim from debris. As with escape routes, if personnel needs to move to a safety zone for refuge, conduct a roll-call.

Conclusion
I once arrived on scene to a complex of buildings I’d responded to many times before for false alarms. I had been dispatched to the C building, but as I rolled up, I was looking at the B building and casually announced that I was “on scene, nothing showing.” The C building actually had smoke showing from the third floor with heavy fire.

Needless to say, my “rubber band” broke, and when I got back on the air to request a second alarm and specific mutual-aid units, I used the wrong unit identifier for myself. The dispatcher was confused for a moment, but then the unit whose number I used heard my error and relayed it to the dispatcher. In the end, all went well. The fire went out.

Many years ago, an older, wiser fire officer told me that no matter how bad an incident is, to pause for a moment, take a breath and then “press to talk.” Sound advice.

Remember: The first 15 minutes of any incident will set the stage for the rest of the incident. Pre-planning for any event will assist when that “rubber band” in your brain starts to stretch.

Be safe out there.

You’re the officer of a fire apparatus responding to a report of a collapsed building. Due to recent weather- and terrorist-related building collapses, many thoughts race through your head. The safety of your members and other initial responders will fall on your shoulders during the initial portion of the response. How do you deploy personnel and protect them from hazards at the same time?