BUILDING COLLAPSE RESCUE
By Clark Staten, EMT-P I/C
Asst. Chief Paramedic, Chicago Fire Dept. (ret.)
Former Chairman, National Society of EMS Administrators
Former Chairman, Emergency Management Committee, National Assn.
Numerous recent disasters, in several parts of the world, should alert us to the fact
that people are going to be trapped under buildings and other structures in the
foreseeable future. The very nature of our technologically sophisticated and "growing
taller" society continually increases the likelihood that this sort of calamity will
occur. Current construction trends and population increases seem to continually expand the
risks as people move further up from the ground. With the advent of the
"High-Rise" buildings comes the very real concern of a "building
Each year the buildings seem to get taller and taller and "Mother Nature" or
her creations seem to take their toll of more and more of them. Earthquakes, hurricanes,
tornados, and other weather phenomenon have shown a far greater capacity for destruction,
than society has for building structures that will withstand the weather or earth
disruptions. Both weather and ground patterns have the potential for mass destruction of
both structures and the people that they contain. Manmade destructive forces also play a
major role in the cause of building collapses.
CASE HISTORIES OF RECENT EVENTS
Israel (January, 1991)
Events in the Middle East, that took place during the Persian Gulf Conflict, should also
remind us that man's inhumanity to man can also cause building collapses to occur. With
the exception of certain specially "hardened" structures, most buildings can not
withstand any kind of bombardment or missile impact. The television scenes from Israel
were most frightening as they illustrated the military and civilian rescue forces
attempting to rescue people from buildings that had been hit by Saddam Hussein's
"SCUD" missiles. The likelihood of continued military conflict in that region
should bring additional pause for concern.
Turkey (February, 1992)
Avalanches, caused by record snowfalls in the Western Asia, also took their toll during
the past year. One such occurance took the lives of more than one hundred (100)
"Gendarmes" who were sent to the area of Southern Turkey to protect the Kurds,
who were fleeing Iraqi devastation. Reportedly, a total of as many as four hundred (400)
people lost their lives when "massive walls of snow" engulfed several villages.
Rescue efforts were reported to have been hampered by additional snowfall, poor roads,
and a lack of the proper equipment (cranes, endloaders) to perform the rescue. Yet, people
where found alive in collapsed buildings after more than 48 hours, even though outside
temperatures stayed well below freezing during the rescue.
Turkey (March, 1992)
Twin earthquakes have also struck Turkey in recent months, possibly killing as many 4,000
people. They followed the devastating avalanches by about one month. Rescue efforts were
again described by eyewitnesses as "erratic and disheartening". Correspondants
from the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), and Rueters News
service, described the scene as "disorganized".
A T.V. news reporter was said to have walked into the rubble of a major Turkish city,
during a live telecast, and shouted to trapped victims. Reportedly, a victim answered him
and was eventually rescued by bystanders. A nurse, who was buried under what once was the
region's only medical school and hospital, was extricated after eight (8) days by
persistent rescuers and family members...even though "official" rescue efforts
had been terminated several days before.
Israel (March, 1992)
In Jerusalem, Israel, mudslides, caused by some of the same unusual weather that caused
"blizzards" and "floods" in the Middle East, slithered through an
ancient graveyard and collapsed a popular cafe' and coffee house. The building, in an area
immediately adjacent to Jerusalem's "Old City", crumbled like a "house of
cards". More than twenty (20) people were immediately killed by the collapse and
several dozen others were pulled from the wreckage alive.
Live and delayed pictures from the Cable News Network (CNN) showed Israeli and
Palestinian rescue workers working "below grade" to attempt to extricate the
trapped people. Unfortunately, they also showed that the exposed sides of the collapse had
not been "shored" to prevent a further collapse. Several rescuers were
reportedly injuried when a section collapsed further and dragged them into the buidling
Argentina (March, 1992)
Later in March, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina was destroyed by a car
bomb, suspected of being detonated by a supporter of the "Islamic Jihad" and/or
"Hezbollah". The blast destroyed the embassy, a chuch and school across the
street and damaged several other building. More than 110 people were reportedly in the
structure at the time of detonation. Many people were rescued almost immediately by
hundreds of bystanders and Buenos Aires police and fire department members. More than
twenty-seven (27) died as the result of the explosion and being buried in the building
collapse. Complaints were published, quoting rescuers, that efforts were hampered by a
lack of "heavy equipment" to help to remove the vast amounts of debris that
entrapped the victims.
(Author's Note) These reports are offered as constructive criticism, and not meant to
diminsh the courage, determination, or "almost superhuman" efforts on the part
of the rescuers that participated in every one of the incidents mentioned. These
observations are presented, however, for the purpose of learning about the dangers,
problems, tactics, strategies, and equipment that is needed to effectively perform this
kind of rescue. This information is also presented to demonstrate the inevitability of
additional building collapses in the coming months and years.
NATURE OF THE PROBLEM
Building collapse rescue is an often complex and confusing situation. It will
frequently involve large numbers of specialized rescue personnel and equipment that might
not be generally be recognized as being part of a normal rescue organization. It should
also require a combination of a variety of technical rescue skills and an advanced
knowledge of building structures and materials.
When a building collapses, it generally does so in one of two ways. The building can be
thought of as having "exploded" or "imploded". The primary difference
between the two types of collapse is the direction of force as it applies to the materials
contained in the structure. It will also assist in a determination of the density of the
debris that is involved in the rubble.
With implosion, the building will collapse into itself. It is a technique that is used
by demolition specialists to minimize the spread of debris when purposely demolishing
buildings. This type of collapse is likely to be caused when interior weight bearing
structures lose their integrity and subsequently "pull" exterior walls into the
center of the mass. The density, and generally the depth, of debris is greater when a
building is said to have imploded.
In the case of explosion, either caused by an outward rush of force caused by natural,
mechanical, or chemical forces, the building will collapse in an "outward"
direction. It is likely that the debris will be more wide spread in the vicinity of the
collapse, and that it could be of lesser density and depth. A tornado or hurricane can
"scatter" building parts for several hundred feet or even farther, when it
causes a building(s) to collapse. It is possible that victims could be "buried"
under debris a greater distance from the center of mass.
HORIZONTAL VERSUS VERTICAL RESCUE
Most rescue experts agree that building collapse extrication must be a process of
vertical removal, rather than horizontal movement or reduction. The safest way to remove
debris from someone that is buried should involve carefully lifting the debris from above
the victim and continually "shoring" the sides of the entrance hole or
excavation to ensure against additional collapse. This is a method that is consistent with
common practices used for "trench rescue".
In the case of building collapses, the magnitude of the shoring efforts and the type of
equipment necessary to perform the rescue may be very different from normal extrication.
In order to facilitate vertical removal of debris, it may be essential to quickly locate
and utilize various types of "cranes" and other types of "overhead
lift" capabilities. It is strongly suggested that every rescue system have previous
knowledge of and training for the use of heavy construction equipment. Emergency
dispatchers should have access to a list of construction companies and other businesses
that could provide this type of equipment on a 24 hour a day-seven day a week basis.
The importance of careful overhead lifting of debris, rather than vertical movement,
can not be emphasized enough. As many as one third of all building collapse victims, that
are rescued, are found in spaces created by the way that building materials generally
fall. Most of the collapse configurations that occur (lean-to, A-Frame, tent, pancake)
create "voids" in which people may be trapped and remain alive. Vertical
movement of debris will normally further collapse the sides of these "protective
spaces" and can result in additional deaths of those that might have been rescued.
GENERAL BUILDING COLLAPSE RESCUE GUIDELINES
- (1) As one might expect, immediately after a collapse, the debris of the building is
very unstable and prone to additional movement. Rescuers must assess the nature of the
scene and the pattern of the collapse before entering onto a a pile of rubble to insure
their own safety and that of those potentially buried in it. Shoring may be necessary to
prevent movement, before attempting rescues.
- (2) Gather as much information as is possible at the onset of the incident.
"Intelligence" regarding the last known locations and activities of those
believed to be in the structure will greatly assist in developing a plan for recovery
efforts. Concentrate your preliminary efforts on areas where people were last seen or
known to be. It is suggested that a "Command" person be designated to interview
those that may have escaped the collapse, were eyewitnesses, or were in the building and
rescued early in the effort. Obtain a list of the people normally in the building, if one
- (3) After ensuring rescuer safety and minimal movement of the debris, send small
organized teams to the top of the pile and systematically search the surface in specific
grids. Use barricade tape and markers to visually demonstrate the areas that have been
searched and those that could potentially contain victims. As many as one half (1/2) of
all building collapse survivors have historically been rescued near the surface of the
debris and early in the effort. Concentrate your efforts on those areas that are believed
to be the last known locations of people, when the collapse occured.
- (4) CALL for Help!! It normally will be necessary to activate some sort of disaster plan
for large scale building collapses. This type of rescue is very manpower intensive and may
require large numbers of extrication and medical personnel. Call for the "overhead
lift" capability that you will need, as soon as it can be determined that people are
missing or still trapped. Remember... it is likely you will need some method of
"cutting" concrete and the steel reinforcing bars ("Rebar") that are
contained within most modern buildings. (i.e. torches, hydraulic cutting tools, saws).
- (5) Explore visually, or with mechanical devices (closed circuit/fiber optic T.V.), all
possible "voids" that are open or can be reached by removing surface debris. It
is suggested that, at approximately every hour on the hour, all work at the site be shut
down for a few minutes to listen for calls for help. During that period, sound detection
devices can be used to "listen" for movement or sounds deep within the debris.
Call for "Search Dogs" and handlers, as they are available in your area or
region. (Have the equipment and dogs on a dispatcher's resource list with the heavy
- (6) Continue to remove debris... carefully and vertically, searching each
"void" or entrance to a "void" as it becomes available to the rescuer.
Consideration must be given to the fact that the rescue effort is NOT over until EVERY
reasonable effort has been expended. Expect these type of rescues to last
days...especially when multiple buildings are involved (earthquake, avalanche, etc).
People have CONTINUALLY and HISTORICALLY been found alive many hours and days into the
rescue. Have command, media relations, and logistics officers plan for a multiple day
operation when people are still suspected of being missing and their bodies have not been
- (7) Great care must be taken when a person is located, either dead or alive, to ensure
that additional collapse doesn't occur in the area of their entrapment. Rescuers should
use their hands and small tools to remove the remaining debris surrounding a person. The
victims condition may dictate the speed with which rescue efforts progress. Consideration
should be given to early application of Military Anti-Shock Trousers for viable persons
that have "crushing" injuires. Preparation and the beginning of application of
them should take place as soon as the entrapment permits. Several instances of complete
hemodynamic collapse and death have been noted upon release from confinement. Intravenous
solutions can also be administered by qualified EMS personnel as extrication continues.
Caution should be urged in the use of morphine or other painkillers.
- (8) DO be prepared for the emotional and psychological implications of the incident.
Prepare early for Critical Incident Stress debriefing sessions for rescuers, victims and
families. It is strongly suggested that mental health professionals and crisis
intervention be made available to the families of those believed trapped, at the earliest
opportunity. The stress of protracted digging, discovery of disfigured remains, odd smells
and sights can affect even the most hardened of rescue professionals. Supervisory
personnel may want to set aside a special place for families and psychological care near
to, but, off of the rescue site. To do otherwise will invite charges of insensitively, and
probably prompt the families to attempt to enter or stay in the rescue area.
- (9) Relief for both supervisory and field rescue personnel must be forthcoming. Even
though most rescuers will insist in continuing their efforts for many hours, they lose a
large part of their effectiveness after 18-24 hours or less. Ensure that all rescuers eat
and rest at frequent intervals, as circumstances permit. Prepare to (and do) call in
off-duty or mutual aid personnel as they are needed. Stage all extraneous units in a
planned way and avoid having more personnel on-site than can effectively work at one time.
- (10) During long term or at major rescue operations, expect extreme "media"
coverage, including the national and international press. Be prepared for analysis and
commentary of your every move. It is suggested that this scrutiny can be somewhat averted
by appointing a designated Public Information Officer (P.I.O.), and by planning and giving
frequent press briefing and updates. Include "front-line" rescuers and technical
experts that you may be being utilizing in the effort. During the early stages of the
event, give these briefings hourly in an area adjacent to the site and provide as much
information as you can actually verify. As the length of the rescue increases, plan a
morning and afternoon news conference. It is suggested that someone monitor press
activities on a constant basis, in order to be able to anticipate the questions and
concerns of the media. Be as forthcoming as possible, without compromising the integrity
of the rescue operation, the victims, or the families of the victims.
- (11) Anticipate the need for additional resources that you haven't thought of prior to
this event. Be prepared to obtain architectural drawings of the building(s) affected. How
about gas mains, water pipes, or electrical services that are disrupted? You may want an
aerial perspective of the scene...do you know where and how to get overhead photos of the
collapse? How are you going to feed "hundreds" of construction workers, rescue
workers, families, and others, who may be there for days? Who's going to pay for
what? Will you need a city/county purchasing agent on-site to approve the immediate
purchase of your needs? Ensure that you have planning and logistics officers who can
anticipate these needs and fulfill them within a moments notice. Often... the difference
between what is perceived as a completely successful rescue and a "disorganized"
one is the quality of your planning and the careful execution of your contingency plans.
- (12) Particularly in multi-story buildings, be prepared for the possibility and
likelihood of underground or cave- type rescue procedures. This type of specialized
rescues requires those experienced with climbing (ascending and descending) manuvers and
the use of technical rappeling methods. Each rescue team (minimum of two rescuers) going
"underground" should have a safety rope attached and be in constant
communications by radio with the surface. They should also possess a minimum of three
viable light sources. Hose rollers and other types of "rope slip devices" must
be used, as to avoid the sharp edges of concrete that will abrade normal rescue ropes.
- (13) IT AIN"T OVER UNTIL IT'S OVER! Generally speaking, you will be
criticized for any early termination of rescue efforts, if there are still people missing
or bodies not recovered. A rule of thumb says it's over when every everyone is accounted
for or the "field is cleared" (of debris). Practical application says that you
will probably scale back the aggressiveness and scope of the effort after several days of
rescue, but that you should remain aware of the fact that people have been successfully
rescued alive after as much as twelve (12) days... buried in the rubble of an earthquake.
In the March, 1992 Turkish earthquake, a 22 year old nurse was pulled from beneath a
building collapse after eight days. She was also quoted as saying that she had been
"talking with her two friends", who were also buried, for several days after the
collapse...until she "didn't hear them anymore". The thought of someone
remaining buried alive for several days should be enough motivation for most rescuers to
continue with their efforts until every possible hope has been exhausted.
- (14) Establish on-scene (and separate) communications (Radio, Data, telephone)
connections and expect problems with being able to coordinate with many differing
agencies. It might be suggested that a "common" disaster frequency might be
designated in preplanning sessions for the initial response to the incident. Once
on-scene, the Incident Command team may need to establish several different
"nets" of units or agencies and have a common dispatch center at the command
post. Anticipate the need to constantly communicate with construction workers (crane
operators) and their supervisors, and probably a dozen other agencies that you never
thought of. Also remember that the need for coordination with local and state police may
become necessary for crowd/access control and other purposes. Often police agencies will
become involved in securing the remains of fatal victims in a temporary morgue at the
- (15) EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED! Regardless of the thoroughness of your contingency
planning efforts and the diligence of all of the people involved in the rescue, something
will become a problem that no one has anticipated. This is just another opportunity to
demonstrate the quality, committment, and dedication that comprises the makeup of most
rescue organizations...let the improvisional ability of the firefighters, EMTs,
paramedics, police officers shine through!
One of the most difficult, emotionally draining, and technically complex types of
rescue can be a building collapse incident. The keys to a successful rescue are pre-
planning, practice, and perseverance. By learning more about this increasing commonplace
event, we can be better prepared to save lives and alleviate the suffering of it's
Original article by Clark Staten, EMT-P, I/C
All Rights reserved, except as assigned
Original printed copyright - Emergency Medical Services Magazine, 1992
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