AMU Emergency Management Original

What Emergency Responders Need to Know When a Building Collapses

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By Randall Hanifen
Edge Contributor

By now, much of the world knows of the collapse of the Chaplain Towers condominium building in Surfside, Florida.

Many within the fire service heard the first arriving officer’s scene assessment that might have included an expletive. Personally, I thought for what he encountered that morning, he did an outstanding job. The fact that he was able to verbalize the extent of the damage and start to amass more resources is all you could ask of an engine company officer when he encounters such a disaster.

However, if you’re the first arriving battalion chief, what is your next action and call for resources? We all have some dispatch protocols, whether they are in the head of the fire chief or six alarms of apparatus specifically programmed into a CAD system with a hard copy back-up. In either case, the need for additional resources exists everywhere.

So what specific building collapse resources do you have? What mass casualty resources do you have? What fire suppression resources can you muster? And what provisions do you need to rotate those resources for the next two weeks? Do not forget, you will also need to muster a group to manage the incident for the duration.

Facets of the Incident

As we have seen the disaster unfold, we have noticed there are many different facets that will need attending to. The first and most obvious is the search for and rescue of potential victims.

This aspect has many specialized sub-facets that are well beyond the typical firefighters’ training and abilities. The first is a knowledge of building collapse and the potential for secondary collapse.

The second knowledge base is technical search, which allows rescuers to focus their efforts on high probability areas of finding victims. The next is the technical portions of stabilization and debris removal, which can be as simple as putting debris in buckets. But it is often done with the assistance of heavy equipment and specialized cutting tools.

All of these efforts are made possible through coordination and logistical support. Depending on the funds available to the teams in your area, they could own many of these specialized tools. But due to cost, they may have only one kind of the needed tools and it will last only until it breaks down for the first time.

The next facet is the mass casualty response. Due to the high potential for victims, the ICs need to ensure that they have an effective deployment of resources that can process mass casualties. This is possible only by having resources to triage, treat, and transport the victims. While each building collapse is different in terms of occupancy loads, the IC should have a guesstimate as to the number of people in a building at a given time.

Another facet that is not considered immediately is the need for hazardous materials response. While these are not typically the large hazardous materials events we see at chemical facilities, there is a need for decontamination and possible atmospheric monitoring.

In the early stages of the event, its cause may not be clear, so we need to rule out radiation and other hazardous substances to ensure that responders are not in jeopardy of career-ending health conditions.

As many in the military know, logistical support will make or break an operation. Typically, we in the fire department arrive with the tools on the truck, use them to mitigate an event, and then return home. For sustained events, such as a building collapse, getting ahead of the logistics is the only way to sustain the operation. Whether it is feeding the responders or repairing broken equipment, the need for planning and attaining these support items is imperative.

Another significant consideration is the need to set up and coordinate a base of operations. Because you are inviting possibly thousands of personnel to the event, you will need a place for their vehicles and equipment, and sleeping facilities for them. These facilities will need to be far away enough not to interfere with the disaster site, but close enough to support the responders.

Next is the critical question of who is paying for this? While no one has yet published a cost estimate of the Champlain Towers response and recovery effort, it will be incredibly significant. So the local government must tally the costs and determine which are covered by the state and which by the federal agencies.

I am positive that many local Surfside responders are working overtime and will expect their next payday to reflect that overtime. Thus, a large influx of costs will be borne by the local agencies. If your planning does not include knowing how much you have in your bank account to use during a disaster, I would suggest adding this to the list of critical items to know in advance.

Collaboration and inter-organizational actions are at an all-time high during this type of event. A few operations that are beyond the local fire and EMS agencies are the coroner and law enforcement. Law enforcement can vary from scene security to a federal investigation into the cause of the collapse and possible prosecution of those responsible. Whether or not responders initially think of the collapse as a criminal investigation site, at some point they will recognize such is the case and will need to work with the appropriate officials to ensure that the investigation is not compromised by actions of the responders.

This type of disaster will test every facet of emergency management and emergency services. We must be thankful for and support those who train many hours each year for search and rescue operations as well as for all supporting efforts.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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