Post-Earthquake Building Collapse Tactics

Consider this scenario: You’re transporting a patient to the hospital during a routine BLS transport for a respiratory patient who’s on oxygen. Upon arrival, you notice that the ambulance drive-through area is full, so you park in the parking lot. As you wheel the patient on a gurney toward the ER, the gurney becomes unstable. Your partner tells the patient to sit still. You glance up and notice that the large trees surrounding the parking area are swaying wildly. Then you feel the ground move—you’re experiencing an earthquake. Does your department have an initial action plan for this type of situation?

And what if the situation worsened? This article will discuss the hazards and initial actions that first responders should take when responding to a building collapse due to an earthquake.

Post-Earthquake Considerations
Unlike a building that collapses due to old age, responders must consider other causes of collapse (e.g., acts of terrorism, weather-related issues and earthquake-damaged buildings) that can create unique challenges. In an earthquake scenario, it’s not uncommon for agencies to have a policy that prevents units from responding for 5–10 minutes after the earthquake ends so that they can first assess the damage to their station and check on the status of their own personnel. They may also need to move apparatus and personnel to a point of safety prior to responding to incidents.

Once units are able to respond, keep in mind that in the aftermath of an earthquake, they’ll have to travel very cautiously. There may be sinkholes in the roadway large enough for a car to fall into. It may also be extremely difficult to see fallen power lines or lines that are hanging much lower to the ground than they should. Broken water mains may cause flooding or simply pour several feet of water across a roadway. Tip: Don’t walk or drive through deep water if you can’t verify that the road is intact beneath the water.

Are high-occupancy target hazards (e.g., schools, assisted-living facilities, hospitals, high-occupancy, multiple-family dwellings) located in your first-due area? If so, they should be included on a post-earthquake survey list that’s kept in the apparatus, and an attempt should be made to drive by those areas to check their status.

Knowing what buildings look like prior to an incident will assist with your initial assessment of a structure. At first glance, a three-story building may look slightly damaged; however, upon closer examination, you may discover that it used to be a four-story building. Buildings with a soft first floor (a parking area for example) may experience a pancake collapse of a lower floor.

Remember: Appropriate PPE is essential. The only responder fatality at the Alfred P. Murrah Building in 1995 was an off-duty nurse who was attempting to render aid when she was killed by falling debris that struck her in the head. She was not wearing a helmet. All personnel working on the scene of any building collapse should be wearing helmets and the minimum PPE.

Building Collapse: A Walkthrough
You’ve arrived at a building collapse site in the aftermath of an earthquake. Treat this response as you would any other incident, but remember that your incident may be one of many, and you may need to operate with fewer resources initially than you would on a single-site incident.

As you come upon the area of the incident, ask your driver to slow down so that you can assess the area. Be sure to keep the apparatus far enough away from the potential collapse zone (which should equal 1½ times the height of the structure).

The following are additional actions you should take once you arrive on scene.

Initiate Command
The scene may be chaotic with would-be rescuers attempting to perform rescues; it’s easy to fall in line with everyone else. To ensure the proper resources are on hand, initiate command and control. You may need to use a megaphone or the apparatus PA system to remove non-rescue personnel from the hazard area.

Perform a 360
You need to have eyes on all sides and above the structure so that you can make good tactical decisions. As bad as the situation looks on one side of the incident, it could be even worse on another side. Prior to deploying resources, know what you are dealing with.

Ask Determining Questions
First, determine whether this is a rescue or a recovery operation, which is easy to do on paper, but can be difficult to do in the field. Assume that there are viable victims initially, but if/when you determine that there aren’t, notify all personnel operating on scene that you’re switching to a recovery mode.

Second, determine whether you can perform an interior search operation. Ask yourself, what is the stability of the structure? Are there cornice walls or unsupported porch roofs that will need to be supported prior to accessing an area? Do you have personnel on site who are qualified to make that determination?

Third, determine the hazards on scene. Are they visible? Can anything be done to mitigate them? Tip: Remember to look up. In residential neighborhoods, brick chimneys that did not initially collapse may do so during an aftershock or on their own. Be aware of your surroundings.

Fourth, determine what additional resources will be needed: Shoring? Specialized technical search equipment? And remember to call for resources early.

Initiate Marking Systems
Initiate hazard and search marking systems. Structures can be labeled as to the nearest means of egress, on-site hazards, day/time and the identification of the person who did the assessment. Areas that are entered and searched can be labeled with search marking system information. The day/time and identification of who did the search and what they found is information that can be visually passed onto additional crews that are assigned to assist or perform specific tasks.

Remember: Prior to entering any structure, shut off the utilities (water, electricity and gas).

Deploy Personnel in Priority Order
Once all non-trapped witnesses and patients have been directed away from the hazard area, you can evaluate what you have. Attempt to rescue victims who are visible, trapped and unprotected as soon as possible.

Assign a Safety Officer
As trained personnel become available, assign a dedicated safety officer to the area who can evaluate the changing hazards on scene and monitor personnel working in the field.

Be Prepared to Work Alone
If there’s a major incident involving multiple building collapses, your company will more than likely be working without assistance and with limited resources. But there’s a lot you can accomplish with the basic equipment carried on a fire engine.

The Residential Collapse
In addition to the above listed tasks and considerations, what rescue skills should we expect an engine company to perform at a building collapse in a residential neighborhood that consists of wood-frame houses?

  • Lift and move heavy objects: Using pinch bars and cribbing, two “lifters” can successfully lift heavy objects and rest them on the cribbing.
  • Breach the structure: Chainsaws and hand tools can be used to breach the outer skin of the structure. Tip: Working from the top down will be the safest approach in many situations.
  • Treatment and movement: Provide initial BLS care to patients, moving them on backboards and ladders.
  • Shut down utilities: With basic tools, water and gas lines can be turned off either at the residence or at the street, if accessible.
  • Protect trapped victims: Victims who aren’t easily removable and/or will require an extended rescue operation need to be protected in place. Protect them from overhead hazards by putting a helmet on their head, and cover their eyes with goggles. Protect their respiratory tract with a filter mask, respirator or even a bandana or T-shirt. Be prepared to protect them from fire (have water available) and heat loss (wrap them in a blanket or turnout coat) when needed.
  • Fire extinguishment: Extinguish fires in their incipient stage when possible, as a delay will inhibit the ability to search for survivors. If it’s initially impractical to access these fires with hoselines, a pressurized water extinguisher is an excellent initial-attack tool. Be prepared to extinguish a fire; always have extinguishers nearby.
  • Perform scene control: Using scene tape or other materials, set up an exclusion zone. Keep the public away from your command post so that you can work without distraction. Don’t rely on law enforcement officers to be available to assist you with this task initially, as they may be delayed due to other incidents and road conditions.
  • Use scene lighting: All personnel operating on scene should have their own personal lighting, but for nighttime operations, attempt to establish scene lighting. This may help prevent trips and falls over uneven terrain in areas that will have a lot of foot traffic.

What Happened?
What happened to the crew with the patient on the gurney? Once the ground stopped shaking and a couple of minutes passed by, the responders quickly yet carefully wheeled the patient into the ER, passed them to the ER staff and returned to the fire station to staff their engine. They also proceeded to survey the list of target hazards in their first-due district.

The earthquake that had struck the region was the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, which was one of the largest recorded earthquakes in Washington State history. It measured 6.8 on the Richter scale, and in 45 seconds it injured 400 people.

Sidebar: Engine Company Collapse Rescue Equipment

The listed items are only the basics. Other items such as airbags, a cutting torch, gas-powered circular saws, listening devices, search cameras, portable lighting and shoring equipment may be available to you as well, but you can do a lot with just the basic equipment.

  • Pinch bars:These 5–6' straight steel bars have a chisel tip on one side and can be used as Class I, II and III levers for lifting.
  • Cribbing: 4 x 4 and 2 x 4 cribbing cut into 18–24" lengths (24" works best) and 4 x 4 and 2 x 4 wedge sets length to match cribbing. Use cribbing to assist in lifting and removing heavy objects.
  • Forcible entry tools: Once a building is “rocked,” even unlocked doors may not open. A set of irons (a Halligan and an axe) will ensure you can get these doors open.
  • Bolt cutters: May be used to cut small rebar and other debris
  • Light box hand lights: In addition to helmet- or coat-mounted lights, a box-style hand light will allow you to place it in a position that illuminates a work area.
  • 12.5-mm rope: This may be used to raise and lower equipment, secure building materials or to raise or lower a victim to safety.
  • 1" tubular webbing: Lashing material can be used to secure a patient to a litter basket, lash a litter to a ladder, lash together a tripod, etc.
  • Ladders: Either roof ladders or extension ladders can be used to reach upper or lower floors where there are no stairs or damaged stairs. May be used with a litter basket as a moving ladder or a ladder slide.
  • Respiratory protection: Cartridge respirators or SCBA can be used when working in unventilated spaces until the air quality can be determined.
  • Pressurized water extinguisher for fire control and to control dust:These are fast to deploy, and they’re the first line of defense when an incipient fire develops.
  • Tarps: Can be used to seal off an area or shield an area from public viewing to give injured and deceased victims’ privacy.
  • EMS equipment: For use on injured victims, as well as our own first responders. Backboards may be used to remove injured victims from the structure. If there are no litter baskets on scene, a backboard may be lashed to a roof ladder to create a moving ladder. Backboards may also be used to help protect trapped victims from falling debris initially.
  • Sawz-All with metal cutting blades: This is a good way to cut rebar and other debris. Tip: If you use a battery-operated model, carry spare batteries with you.
  • Chainsaw: For access into collapsed wood-frame structures, this is an excellent tool, but make sure that the area on the opposite side of where you’ll cut is clear of people.
  • Scene tape: A quick way to delineate an area where the public can’t cross.
  • Shovels: Loose debris can be moved, and a berm can be made to help divert the flow of running water.
  • 72-hour food pack: Crews should be able to be self-sufficient in the field, ideally for 72 hours. Each responding apparatus should carry a supply of water and some sort of nourishment for their crews.
  • Building marking system cards: Structure ID marking, structural hazards evaluation marking and search assessment marking.