Structural Collapse Awareness

Any time first responders arrive at a scene, they should be aware of their surroundings and constantly survey the scene for their own safety and the well being of others.  An important thing to take into account is the structural integrity of both standing buildings and those that already have collapsed.

Many things can cause buildings and structures to be unstable. Mother Nature obviously can cause damage to structures, but so can things like fire and explosions. The building could be old, dilapidated and not supported by solid beams. New construction that has not yet been completed can be damaged more easily by high winds than completed structures. Moving heavy pieces of equipment can cause a structure to collapse and there have even been instances where vehicles have driven into buildings and caused structural damage.

Is the situation that I am responding to have the potential to cause structural damage?

It also is important to determine if the situation can spark additional instances. An earthquake usually has aftershocks and explosions can lead to additional explosions. Explosions can damage other pressurized equipment like acetylene and propane cylinders, which can cause secondary explosions.

As in other response situations, you always should be cognizant of utilities. Structural collapses can cause gas leaks, electrical problems and other utility-related issues.

Is it safe to work in the environment you have responded to?

Anytime you enter a disaster or accident situation and building integrity is questionable, there are things to look for to determine the structural soundness.

Determining safety can be as straightforward as examining the outward appearance of the building. Does the building look straight or are the walls leaning or bulging? The closer a wall gets to a 15-degree angle, the more likely it is going to fall.

Others things to consider: Does the structure of the building have cracks? Do you hear creaking sounds, which suggest the building is moving? You also can look for sagging floors and beams. When walls start leaning and are out of plumb or you see cracks in a structure and hear creaking noises to indicate structural movement, you should treat the building as if it is unstable.

What about a building that already has collapsed?

Very seldom does a building settle to a stable point in one move. Usually a collapse results in void spaces – the same spaces that provide hope for survivors can be detrimental to the safety of first responders. Consider a collapsed building to be a bunch of shifting piles. There are areas that have been created by structural components that have not completely settled.

If the structure already has fallen, you should consider everything on the pile to be a live load which will continue to shift and settle. Be extremely careful when attempting to move objects on a pile of rubble – it can be very tricky and dangerous. It is very difficult to determine what is attached to what.

Things that move easily are usually not supporting other parts of the collapse. When you attempt to move an object and it does not move easily, it is probably because it is supporting another object. Don’t try to force it! It may give the already unstable structure what it needs to collapse further. Consider the weight of the object and if it feels like it should move and does not, look for binding issues and determine what is preventing the removal of debris.

In addition, if you are on a pile of rubble, always watch where you step and make sure your footing is steady before taking another step.

What should you do if you do not feel safe in a structural collapse situation?

Call the folks who are trained in structural collapse situations. Some agencies have structural collapse teams and, if they don’t, their local emergency operations center usually has contacts for structural collapse teams that can respond. Structural engineers can help or, if you are at a construction site, the job superintendent or the safety officer may be able to help.

If you do not have a team equipped to handle structural collapse situations, you may consider training. The Texas Engineering Extension Service, or TEEX, uses the 52-acre Disaster City as a training ground for urban search and rescue personnel, including numerous classes involving structural collapse skills.

As an emergency responder, you cannot do your job if you are injured. Be aware of the signs that indicate a building could collapse and how to navigate a pile of rubble. The life you save may be your own.

About the author: Steve Sparks has 34-plus years of experience in emergency response and currently is a district chief for the Houston Fire Department. He has been involved in rescue since 1982 and also is an adjunct instructor with the Texas Engineering Extension Service. In addition, he is a Texas Task Force 1 rescue team manager and has been a member of the task force since its inception in 1997. Texas Task Force 1, the state’s elite urban search and rescue team is one of the 28 teams in the National US&R System.

About TEEX: The Texas Engineering Extension Service, or TEEX, is a member of the Texas A&M University System and offers hands-on, customized first-responder training, homeland security exercises, technical assistance and technology transfer services impacting Texas and beyond. TEEX programs include fire services, homeland security, law enforcement, public works, safety and health, search and rescue and economic development.

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