This is the second in a series on training for collapse operations. In the previous column I addressed how to evaluate your collapse rescue training needs, the five stages of collapse rescue operations (1-Reconnaissance, 2- Surface Rescue, 3-Void Entry, 4-Selected Debris Removal and 5- General Debris Removal); and determining the necessity of such training to your organization. In this article, I elaborate on the first two stages of collapse operations and the pre-planning and training required to conduct such operations. When deciding whether or not to train for these events, take into account that, according to the FDNY Collapse Operations manual, the survival rate for victims buried in a collapse is 99.3 percent for those extracted in the first 30 minutes. However also take into account the lessons presented by the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. In this event, spontaneous efforts were credited with saving 800 lives, but these efforts also cost the lives of over 100 would-be rescuers.1 These statistics reflect that having trained responders on scene can save lives and having untrained responders on scene can add to the body count.

Pre-planning for a Collapse

After establishing the desire to respond to a collapse, choose the appropriate operational capabilities level.

The Fire Chief’s Handbook describes four levels of operational capabilities that provide a useful set of guidelines:  1-injured not trapped, 2-nonstructural entrapment, 3-void space and nonstructural entrapment, and 4-entombed.

 1.) Injured not trapped: This category covers surface victims, requires basic rescue capabilities and accounts for approximately 50 percent of the victims rescued.

2.) Nonstructural entrapment: This category covers victims trapped by contents in an undamaged or lightly damaged building of light frame construction. This operational level requires light rescue capabilities, conducted with simple hand tools, minimal shoring and basic first aid. It accounts for approximately 30 percent of the victims rescued.

3.) Void space and nonstructural entrapment: This category covers victims trapped by contents in a void space of a partially or completely collapsed structure of reinforced or unreinforced masonry construction. This operational level requires medium rescue capabilities entailing technical search and emergency medical capabilities, power tools, breaching, lifting and shoring. This accounts for approximately 15 percent of the victims rescued.

4.) Entombed: This category covers victims trapped by structural components of a partially or completely collapsed structure of reinforced or unreinforced concrete and steel frame construction. These rescues require an advanced level of training and financial commitment that is usually only achieved by FEMA urban search and rescue (US&R) task forces and some fire department US&R teams. Such teams have heavy rescue capabilities with numerous assets such as doctors, engineers and canine teams. This category accounts for approximately five percent of the victims rescued.2

To choose the correct operational level examine several things (beyond available funding and support) including: resources available including mutual aid, local, state and federal assets as well as on site assets; conduct a hazard assessment of potential collapse scenarios as they apply to the facility (i.e. an earthquake that damages numerous structures and stretches local assets requires greater operational capabilities than what is required to respond to a vehicle accident causing localized structural damage) and the type of structures likely to sustain damage.

 After establishing which operational level to train to, as well as what components of that operational level you will train for (i.e. you may decide to utilize a local ambulance corps to fulfill your medical requirements) you must 1st develop some basic SOPs before you can train in them.

These SOP’s can include:

• Who and what will respond, and to what type of incidents will they respond (a response matrix)?

• What is expected of those who respond?

 • What are the PPE requirements? The only rescuer killed in the Oklahoma City bombing was nurse Rebecca Anderson who was struck on the head by falling debris during her efforts to help the wounded. Proper PPE would probably have averted this tragedy.

• Equipment compatibility such as hose fittings or radios or less tangible items such as terminology.

• Communications such as the initial call for mutual aid, onscene communication between units, dealing with the press, and emergency warning systems for personnel operating on scene.3

• Personnel accountability systgems to account for on-site personnel. “Witnesses” often prompt he FDNY to conduct searches for people who are later found to have left the building.

 Stage I Reconnaissance

The reconnaissance phase consists of a scene size up including a hazard assessment and risk benefit analysis. Although some noted authorities list the control of utilities (or processes in the case of industry) as a separate stage, the FDNY begins the control of hazards simultaneously with the size up.

The scene size up and risk benefit analysis can be similar to those used on the fire ground such as COAL WAS WEALTH.4

Issues that should be taken into account during hazard assessment and mitigation are secondary collapse, electrical hazards, gas leaks, water main breaks, hazardous materials and adverse weather (wind, heavy rain and snow can cause debris to fall, secondary collapse and falling hazards). If available, utilize meters.

Also consider laying the foundation for long-term operations such as establishing an area for vehicles/staging (available but outside the collapse/danger zone), establishing a water source and maintaining street coordination.

The reconnaissance stage can initially be practiced on either an intact structure or a picture of a damaged structure. Some of this stage can even be written into SOP’s; such as the procedures for the shutting down of utilities and processes for specific structures or areas.

Stage II Surface Rescue

Although the five stages of collapse rescue are listed individually, there will always be an overlap. One example is the removal of surface victims while conducting reconnaissance; another is the ongoing hazard assessment that occurs throughout operations.

 In addition to the hazards listed above, according to FEMA’s Structural Collapse Technician Course, there are three basic ways to mitigate a structural hazard:

1-Avoid It – this is preventing access to the dangerous area and can be as simple as putting yellow barrier tape around an area where there is a danger of falling debris,

2-Remove It – an example of this would be pulling down a cracked and leaning chimney,

3-Shore It – this is building an actual shoring system.

 In addition to hazard mitigation, prioritize the search areas. This can be a simple process (i.e. one partially collapsed structure with one person missing) or difficult (i.e. an earthquake with multiple collapsed structures with an undetermined number of people missing). FEMA engineers have a rating system to prioritize buildings to be searched based on factors such as type of structure, type of occupancy, type of collapse, additional hazards and time of day. An industrial team has the advantage of knowing its facility and having a system of employee accountability. They can prioritize structures based on the likelihood and quantity of people in the structure and the likelihood of survival. This is based on the type of collapse and the presence of other hazards.

 After establishing the search area but before beginning to search, LCES (lookouts, communications, escape routes and safe havens) should be implemented as deemed appropriate. Lookouts are posted around the perimeter of the collapse site to monitor hazardous areas for movement. Communications means that members must be aware of the evacuation signaling method that will be in use. Escape routes mean that operating in the danger zone must have a preplanned and alternate escape route. If an escape route is deemed impractical, due to the distance to safety or some other factor, a safe haven should be created where rescuers are working.

With this work completed rescuers can commit to search the surface of the collapse. While search techniques are based on existing circumstances and available resources it is important to have a systematic approach to avoid duplication of efforts and assure a thorough search. As victims are found record their identities to ascertain when all personnel are accounted. If possible, interview victims regarding to possible information on other survivors.

The surface rescue stage has the potential to rescue the most victims either lightly trapped by contents, not trapped but injuredor able to move but needing some guidance or assistance (a.k.a. “the walking wounded”). As this stage is completed, it evolves into stage three void entry.

 1. NYC OEM, NYPD, FDNY, NYC CERT Community Emergency Response Team Manual, Fall 2005 p.7.

2. Fire Engineering, The Fire Chief’s Handbook 6th edition, Tulsa Oklahoma, 2003.

3. The following is the standard emergency signaling system used by all FEMA US&R Task Forces, and the FDNY. It may be sounded on a handheld aerosol can air horn, or on apparatus air horns. Safety Officers and members positioned as lookouts for hazard monitoring are issued an air horn. Long Blast (3 seconds) Cease Operations/All Quiet 3 short blasts (1 second each) Evacuate the area 1 long and 1 short blast Resume Operations







AREA (Building Size)






James Kiesling is a captain with the FDNY’s Special Operations Command. He holds a bachelor of arts in fire and emergency services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an associates degree in occupational studies in fire protection technology from Corning Community College.