Collapsed machinery at a paper mill in New York City's Staten Island dropped four plant workers to the ground. -

Collapsed machinery at a paper mill in New York City's Staten Island dropped four plant workers to the ground.

This past summer I responded to an industrial accident at a paper mill on New York’s Staten Island. Through the years, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) has responded to this manufacturing facility numerous times for various emergencies, ranging from fires to workers becoming entangled in machinery. This is not an indictment of this particular facility. In fact, I believe that at large industrial facilities that employ many workers a certain amount of accidents is inevitable. In this particular response, a section of the paper machine collapsed, spilling four workers to the ground whom had been in the process of changing the felt. After being cleared from the debris, these workers were packaged with attention towards potential spinal injuries and transported to the hospital where they were treated for what turned out to be minor injuries. FDNY stabilized the section of the paper machine that had collapsed. 

When I use the term collapse, I am referring not just to the failure of a structure but also a failure and collapse of things such as stock or scaffolding. Collapses are a relatively frequent emergency and can be secondary to many events including fires, explosions (last month a distillery in upstate NY suffered a partial collapse, secondary to an explosion), impact (a forklift striking shelving, a car crashing into a structure or a crane toppling), terrorism, natural disasters (flooding, hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.) or as in the Staten Island incident, material fatigue (the metal gave way at a point of attachment).


Do  you  need  to  train  in  collapse  rescue?

The most obvious issue to address when considering collapse training is whether it is needed. Due to the frequency of collapses and that they can be precipitated by so many events, both naturally occurring and man-made, the majority of emergency response teams could benefit from at least a basic level of collapse training. This is what the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) calls an awareness level.

When assessing the desirability (or necessity) of attaining the capability to respond beyond this basic level, several issues should be taken into account beyond the obvious monetary issues. The first issue is to determine what is the availability and capability of assets to handle a potential collapse in a facility. This assessment should go beyond internal capabilities such as the facility’s fire brigade. Local emergency responders, such as the fire department or a state USAR team, have the appropriate level of training. Another possibility is to develop mutual aid agreements with other facilities. When assessing what resources are available include the assets’ response time (how long it will take for the asset to be on site ready to operate).

The next section will discuss the five stages of collapse rescue and how those with less training can operate effectively in the early stages of a collapse while more highly trained resources are en route. This is known as a tiered response and is a cost effective alternative to every facility maintaining every emergency resource it could potentially require. According to FEMA’s Structural Collapse Technician Course, up to 95 percent of the victims who are removed from large disasters (earthquakes and hurricanes) fall into the categories of injured but not trapped or lightly trapped. The vast majority do not require the capabilities of a heavy rescue team. In many circumstances these statistics support the adaptation of a tiered response where onsite personnel provide the initial responders.


Basic  Collapse  Operations 

The FDNY utilizes the five stage collapse rescue plan that is generally accepted with some minor variations by most collapse rescue teams. The five stages are: 1.) reconnaissance, 2.) surface rescue, 3.) void entry, 4.) selected debris removal, and 5.) general debris removal. These stages can overlap. 

1.) Reconnaissance: The overall purpose of this phase is to conduct a size-up of the collapse and rescue problem. It is important to make use of a six-sided approach. This means taking into account not just four sides of the structure but also the top and the bottom (often it is possible to gain access to a basement and come up inside a collapsed structure). Some of the items to consider are:

• Hazards - Secondary collapse dangers, hazardous materials releases, fire, etc.

• Building classification/construction - Light frame (mostly wood frame), heavy wall [unreinforced masonry (URM), tilt-up, etc.], heavy floor (concrete frame buildings), pre-cast concrete buildings and steel frame buildings.

• Controlling the utilities - The utilities are often damaged and controlling them can alleviate many potential problems.

2.) Surface Rescue: The next phase involves the removal of victims who are either on top of the debris injured or lightly pinned. If possible, these victims should be recorded and interviewed for information on other occupants. An accurate list of who was in the building and a record of those removed can show who is missing. This can prevent injury to a rescuer who is conducting a search for someone who has already been removed. 

3.) Void Entry: Following the surface rescue phase (or when adequate manpower has been allocated to conduct surface rescues) comes the void entry phase.  The majority of common collapse patterns form voids in the collapsed structure. These voids may be caused by situations such as collapsed floors and walls leaning on portions of the structure that have remained intact; collapsed floors and walls leaning on each other; or collapsed floors and walls leaning on contents such as heavy machinery. These voids provide access to the interior of the collapsed structure and survivors.

4.) Selected Debris Removal: While void entry is the most efficient means of gaining access to the interior of the collapsed structure at large collapses. This alone will not afford access to the entire structure. Selected debris removal is the next challenging  step that requires an elevated level of training and specialized equipment. In this stage, a rescuer must determine what can and cannot be removed in order to gain access without causing a secondary collapse. The rescuer must also determine how to remove it and how to stabilize what is left. This can involve various saws, torches, jack hammers, rigging, shoring, etc. 

5.) General Debris Removal: When reaching the general debris removal stage it generally means that all of the potential void searches have been exhausted and the operation has shifted from a rescue to a recovery. The collapsed structure will be systematically removed layer by layer.  This removal frequently requires the use of heavy equipment. Debris is moved to a designated area such as a parking lot where it will be spread out and searched before being removed for final disposal. This will continue until all missing persons are accounted for.



This is an overview of collapse rescue operations. While the five stage collapse plan has been developed for the collapse of buildings, the concepts are readily adoptable to events such as a scaffolding collapse or the collapse of a crane. The intent is to clarify the collapse problem, to assist management in ascertaining whether or not having personnel trained in collapse operations is desirable, and the appropriate level of training for these personnel.

In future issues, this column will address the specific areas and levels of training required for the collapse rescue plan.                  


James Kiesling is a captain with the Fire Department of New York’s Special Operations Command.