At 0849 HRS on Thursday, Jan. 9, units from the Lingohocken (Pa.) Fire Company (LFC, stations 35 and 95), as well as Rescue 66 from the Warwick Fire Company (WFC) and Medic 125 from Central Bucks Ambulance, were dispatched to a roof collapse at a commercial building that was under construction in the 2300 block of Heritage Center Drive in Buckingham Township. This area is protected almost completely by a volunteer fire service, with EMS being a primarily career third service. Initially, units were informed that the roof had collapsed, with trusses falling onto workers, trapping at least one individual; however, when units arrived on scene, this was not exactly what they found.
Arrival & Size-Up
The LFC responded with 11 firefighters on Engines 95 and 35-1, both of which are equipped with basic vehicle stabilization equipment, including hydraulic extrication tools; and Engine 35, a standard Type 1 engine. Chief 35 (myself) along with FM 226 (Buckingham Township Building Official/Fire Marshal J. Kettler) arrived within three minutes of the dispatch to find multiple roof trusses on a one-story, wood-frame building had collapsed in a domino fashion, resulting in a lean-to or lean-over situation. A number of trusses were still in the air, pinning one worker at the waist level approximately 10–15 feet above ground; the side B wall was partially compromised and leaning outward. Chief 35 assumed “Heritage Center Command”; Deputy Chief 35 John Bailey arrived shortly thereafter and was assigned to be the operations chief, working with FM 226.
During size-up, firefighters quickly realized that the building was in the early stages of construction, with no occupancies or utilities in the structure to be concerned about, but there was one injured victim in the roof area. Coworkers were attempting to assist this individual, but it wasn’t immediately clear how involved the rescue might be or that the individual was pinned.
Based on the size-up, Command requested that the WFC also respond with Tower Ladder 66, a 75′ Sutphen tower, which has a high-strength aerial design. The WFC units responded quickly with 10 firefighters, but Operations realized that a second aerial apparatus would be needed to access the patient, so Command requested the next-due aerial, a 100’ Pierce straight ladder (Ladder 79), from the Doylestown Fire Company (DFC). Doylestown also responded with Utility 79, with a total of 12 firefighters.
Several priorities were immediately identified. The first: to move several construction vehicles away from side A of the building to allow ample access for the aerial apparatus; this was quickly accomplished. Other incoming support apparatus were directed to set up away from side A to keep that area clear for the aerial apparatus to operate.
Second, there were a number of coworkers on the trusses, and they were instructed to exit the area due to stability concerns; however, the victim spoke Spanish, which presented a language barrier, so one coworker was allowed to stay with him to help with communication. The victim was screaming loudly, and the crews needed to help calm him down to proceed with the rescue.
Third, the building was unstable, so Rescue 66 was assigned to bring shoring/stabilization equipment, with Engines 95 and 35-1 assigned to putting this equipment, as well as ground ladders, into place. At the same time, Tower 66 was requested to work with their aerial to help stabilize the trusses and access the patient. Engine 35’s crew provided additional personnel.
Ground units utilized 2 x 4s from the construction project to begin to brace the compromised wall. Fortunately, the ground was frozen so the bottom end of the 2 x 4s could be tied off to pickets placed in the frozen ground to support the bracing.
Patient Access & Stabilization Concerns
Ladder 79 arrived shortly thereafter, positioning themselves immediately behind Tower 66 and raising their aerial to provide additional access to the patient. A ladder belt/harness was used to secure the patient from above, as he was hanging at the waist with his work belt pinned between the trusses and his legs dangling free below. An additional rescue company was requested to provide additional personnel and equipment, bringing Rescue 5 from the Midway Fire Company (MFC) of Lahaska, which included several firefighters with significant construction experience.
Prior to the victim being extricated, Operations recognized that the 2 x 4 bracing did not provide adequate support to the building, so crews began to sister the 2 x 4s to make 4 x 4 bracing; they also cut notches in the end to place in the window framing of the building wall that was compromised. Spotters were put in place at the A/B and C/D corners of the building to watch the side B wall for any signs of movement during the rescue operation.
At this point, a medical helicopter was brought in; Temple University Medflight 1, and MFC Chief 5 and Engine 5 were requested to handle the landing zone, which was set up nearby in a parking lot. Once the helicopter was on the ground, Engine 5’s crew joined the other teams, as they brought additional personnel with technical rescue expertise.
Here’s a breakdown of the many resources needed to complete patient access/rescue and bring this incident to a safe and successful conclusion:
- The incident command system (ICS) took shape, with Command, Operations, ground and aerial divisions, and a landing zone group in place.
- MFC Battalion Chief 5 had been designated as the safety officer and worked with Operations to address issues with the collapse zone. Early on, it was determined that personnel should not be allowed to work directly under the collapsed trusses.
- Chief 125 from Central Bucks Ambulance worked with Command as the medical group.
- News helicopters quickly arrived on scene, so FM 226 was initially designated as the public information officer (PIO) and liaison with the contractors; however, Chiefs 35 and 125 were able to hold a briefing with the press at the conclusion of the incident.
- FM 226 and an additional township building inspector provided invaluable support and guidance on scene to units during the rescue operation.
- Command recognized the possible need for extra resources, so they asked Bucks County Dispatch to relocate WFC Rescue 29, a heavy-rescue unit, to the WFC’s station, only about two miles from the scene. This positioned them close to the scene if needed, but also backfilled a rescue company to cover the area. The county also automatically relocated Newtown Fire Association Rescue Engine 45 to the LFC’s main station 35.
After the shoring was in place and the building was stabilized, airbags and spreading equipment were taken up the aerials and used to free the patient, who was lifted using the ladder belt/harness arrangement and placed into a Stokes basket for transfer down the aerial to the ground. Before the spreading operation began, Deputy Chief 125 Scott Henley, a firefighter/paramedic, had evaluated the patient and provided appropriate treatment to assist the rescue.
The victim was extricated from the collapse at 0952 HRS, one hour and three minutes from the initial dispatch and 51 minutes after the first fire/rescue apparatus arrived on scene. The victim was brought to the ground several minutes later, moved to the Temple helicopter and airlifted to a Philadelphia trauma center.
The following week, the units involved conducted a critique of the incident. This was an unusual rescue, and the cooperation and teamwork between the units on the scene was superb, as these companies do routinely work together, but they identified some key points during the critique. Following are some of the lessons learned and/or observations made by responders regarding the incident:
- Clearing the workers’ vehicles and positioning the apparatus to allow aerial access was key to the success of the operation.
- The spotters proved valuable for the safety of the operation.
- An additional tower ladder could have proved useful as an additional overhead support and/or pick point, or at the very least, it could’ve been put in staging to have immediately available, if needed.
- Units on scene could have put the colleagues of the trapped worker to work, building the 4 x 4s early on during the incident.
- Multiple firefighters on the end of the aerial ladder wound up pushing the tip of the ladder down onto the collapsed trusses, but that issue was quickly identified and corrected.
- The county has a technical rescue task force, and the use of it was considered, but they were not dispatched. In hindsight, it would likely have been useful to activate them at the onset of the incident and then cancel them if they weren’t needed or if the rescue was completed before they were operational.
2 Collapses, 1 Year Apart
News reports indicated that the victim was released from the hospital just a few days following the collapse. Ironically, on Jan. 12, 2013, the LFC had been alerted to a truss collapse of a building under construction at Building 600 in the complex—which was directly adjacent to Building 500. At that time, Building 600 had collapsed in the overnight hours with no one in the area. The incident is under investigation by both Buckingham Township and OSHA.