This column is based on a collapse I responded to on Feb. 27. As a disclaimer, I will state that this account of events is based on the operations conducted by myself and the other members of Squad 1 (SQ-1). There were numerous units operating at this collapse and any particular operation, such as the placement of a ladder for shoring, probably involved the actions of individual members of many of those units.
I was the officer on duty working the day tour in SQ-1 and we were conducting a collapse drill constructing collapse shoring. We were finishing up a second type of shoring when the alarm went off and we received a ticket to respond to 467 Rutland Road in Brooklyn, NY, for reports of a building collapse with a worker trapped in the basement. During our response we received confirmation that we had units on scene and they did have a trapped victim.
Upon arrival I reported into the chief in charge and was told that they had the location of the trapped victim and that Rescue 2 (R-2) (another special operations unit) was working on his extrication. I was then ordered to take the company and assist with the extrication. The initial assessment was of a building of class 3 construction (brick and joist) that had been under demolition and had collapsed into the basement.
After a quick survey, a consultation with the R-2 Officer, and metering; SQ-1 split into three teams. One member worked directly with the members of R-2 that were directly involved with extricating the victim, three members sought an alternate means of access to the opposite side of the victim from where R-2 was working, and two members provided support and conducted safing operations.
I along with the SQ-1 Irons, and Roof obtained alternate access to the other side of the victim through a void in the rubble. To obtain this position required some cutting and selected debris removal. Upon reaching the victim we found him in a horizontal position buried to the waist but alert.
Upon gaining access to the victim my assessment was that we had two danger zones. The first and more obvious was the void and other areas where members were operating to extricate the victim. The second was the surrounding area where many support personnel were working. Not only did several sections of the surrounding area have freestanding dirt walls due to excavating but there was also an approximately 60’ section of wall that was heavily damaged, bowed, and mostly freestanding.
After some digging it was discovered that in addition to the general debris, the victim was pinned atop a tire and under a broken beam that was attached to and buried into the debris on both sides of the victim. Cutting a major structural member such as this should not be done lightly.
Since you cannot see the entire beam you cannot be sure what the beam could be supporting. After examining as much as is reasonably possible, appropriate shoring and stabilization should be put in place and during the cutting operation members should be aware of any unforeseen consequences and the release of stored energy.
While the SQ-1 Irons worked directly on victim extrication which he would do until the completion of operations, the SQ-1 Roof conducted shoring operations within the void utilizing struts, cleared debris from the means of egress and access to the victim, and worked to ferry tools (and eventually a Rescue Medic) through the void.
During this time period the SQ-1 Chauffeur and Hook were working together to support the extrication operations. They initially conducted a scene survey to determine hazards that would have to be mitigated. After this assessment they prioritized the order of hazard mitigation initially providing shoring to the unstable wall with ladders and struts.
I had requested an ETA on the collapse unit that would normally be assigned to this box and was told that it was unavailable and a second collapse unit was being sent but from further away. My intent was to have the SQ-1 members working support use the struts it carried to build flying rakers to support the unstable wall.
The absence of this unit would require a change of plans. This made the job of the SQ-1 Chauffeur and Hook that much more difficult due to the lack of appropriate equipment; but they were able to adapt to the situation.
The operations progressed from digging (some conducted with shovels but mostly by hand) and debris removal, to cribbing and lifting operations, and finally to cutting the major beam pinning the victim.
For the remainder of the extrication the SQ-1 Can operated alongside R-2, assisting with debris removal throughout the operation. When a vacuum truck arrived on scene he assisted with putting the suction into operation. This could have been valuable but it was never utilized due to the victim being extricated shortly after it was put into service.
Throughout operations the SQ-1 members operating in a support role were required to provide not just numerous tools to the members working on the extrication but also the blades, batteries and other items necessary to keep those tools operational. During this time they also placed plywood across joists and laddered the collapse area to aid in victim removal and provide improved egress and access to members operating within the collapse zone.
During the extrication operations I had tried to keep watch during any cutting or lifting operations to observe how the collapse was reacting. I also called early for O2 for the victim (which was applied with a non-rebreather by the Squad Irons). This was a lesson learned from previous operations. This was followed up by the Rescue Battalion (RB) ordering that a Rescue Medic be sent through the void for victim assessment.
After the beam was cut the victim was placed on the backboard and maneuvered out from under the remaining beam and debris and passed out of the hole to waiting members. From there he was placed in a Stokes basket and carried out of the collapse to a waiting ambulance; where he was transported to a local hospital and made a complete recovery.
After victim removal the members of SQ-1 remained in the hole and in the collapse area to remove the remaining equipment and then the shoring in reverse order; leaving only the shoring required to leave the scene safe.
This victim extrication was a technical and multifaceted operation requiring the members of SQ-1 to split into three teams with different missions while still operating as a unit.
In a collapse or extrication, we should always think of the six-sided approach. This includes the four sides and above and below. This concept came into play twice during this extrication. The first time was when the members of SQ-1 found a void and operated on the unexposed side of the victim as opposed to trying to address the problem from the same side as R-2.
The second was when trying to remove, cut and lift debris off of the victim. At one point it was thought that attacking the problem from below by undermining the victim would be a viable option. This however proved to be difficult because the victim was pinned atop a tire that extended beneath him back into the rubble pile.
You must remember the patient. In a past collapse that I had written about for IFW (Winter 2016 issue) I felt that I could have gotten the patient on O2 sooner in the operation. In this collapse I called for the O2 early in the operation and the RB had a rescue medic ready to enter and perform an assessment after we deemed the void safe.
I feel that sometimes in training (when using mannequins) we can neglect the patient care side of the operation and can perform acts that would be harmful to a real patient during extrication. This is why I sometimes like to use live victims in training. Also I believe there is training value in having been the victim; it gives the rescuer some small idea of what a victim goes through.
In an operation of any complexity teamwork and cooperation are essential to a successful outcome. When interacting with different units and agencies you have to be flexible. There is generally more than one way to do things and it is not always going to be your way.
In this operation I had performed some cutting operations that made other members nervous so I went to an alternate plan. I still felt that my plan was valid and that I had greater experience to draw on; but also felt that it was better to keep the stress level of those operating in the danger area at a minimum and the spirit of cooperation intact.
Finally it is not just stressing the basics but also remembering simpler and less equipment-intensive methods for accomplishing a given task. In this operation a large portion of our operation was accomplished with reciprocating saws, cribbing, and hand digging.
Also technology is great but it can fail. This is why despite utilizing GPS’s the military still trains members in how to utilize a compass. In this case the collapse rig with the bulk of the high tech collapse equipment was not available. Members resorted to using what was available and had been used before much of the high tech equipment existed. Using ladders in various support/shoring configurations has been in the FDNY manuals since long before I became a firefighter.
James Kiesling is the Captain of Squad 1 of the Fire Department, City of New York’s Special Operations Command. He holds as AOS in fire protection technology from Corning Community College, a BS in fire and emergency services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an MA in homeland security and defense from the Naval Postgraduate School.