Valuable Rubble: Seizing Your Training Opportunities

Valuable Rubble: Seizing Your Training Opportunities


The demolition of a building owned by the Pennsylvania Department of General Services (DGS) in the Capitol Complex in Harrisburg set in motion a series of steps that helped bring to fruition the mutual goal of Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) Director Charles Wynne, Harrisburg Fire Chief Donald Konkle, and Pennsylvania Task Force I (PA TF-1) leaders–to use the structure for an urban search and rescue training exercise. The building, occupied primarily by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), had been extensively damaged by fire in 1994 and was subsequently closed up.

The fire began in Room 607, on the sixth floor, and had burned for some time before activating the fire alarm system. By the time the first responders arrived, a number of offices on the sixth floor had become involved. The fire eventually went to five alarms (four within the first half hour), and it took more than 200 firefighters staffing 11 engines, 10 trucks, and 14 other units to extinguish it. The fire gutted much of the south side of the sixth floor and also caused extensive water, heat, and smoke damage to floors four through seven and smoke damage up to the 12th floor.

After the fire, portions of the building were reopened briefly before the remaining offices were cleaned out and the building closed up. The building then sat vacant for more than four years before it was announced that it would be imploded on August 1, 1998, to make way for the new nine-story Keystone Building.

But before the old building was demolished, it would provide a tremendous training opportunity for PA TF-1, the state`s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team (see box below).


In addition to PennDOT, the Transportation & Safety Building housed the offices of 11 other agencies, including the Department of State, PEMA, Department of Health, and Public Utility Commission. The building, approximately 225 2 75 feet, had a penthouse, 12 stories, two levels belowgrade, and provided office space for 2,500 employees. It was constructed of a concrete encased steel frame, supporting reinforced-concrete over metal deck (Q-decking) floors. The “heavy floor” structure was T-shaped, with elevator banks located on the northeast corner. Fire protection systems consisted of smoke detectors only in the elevator lobbies. It did not have automatic sprinklers.


State officials were approached with the idea of using the structure for a USAR training exercise in the Spring of 1998. All involved agreed that such an exercise would be useful in demonstrating the capabilities of the task force.

Agreements between PEMA and the DGS had to be drawn up for the use of the “building” after its implosion. By contract, the State had to pay the demolition contractor for any State-caused delays that resulted in a work stoppage. Since the demolition contractor was scheduled to begin removing the debris immediately after the implosion, the State in essence paid to “delay” work for 24 hours, giving the task force a brief training window. Liability waivers releasing the demolition contractor, the explosives contractor, and the DGS from liability for injuries incurred during the training exercise had to be signed. FEMA officially sanctioned the training exercise, allowing all task force members to be covered under federal workers` compensation insurance. In addition, PennDOT approved a request for the use of its adjacent parking garage as a staging area for equipment. Cooperative agreements were also formulated with other agencies including the Capitol Police, the Salvation Army, DGS Security, and other state and city agencies. Volunteer fire police from Dauphin and Cumberland Counties were to provide site security.

Hazard abatement also had to be addressed during the planning phase. A contractor had removed asbestos from the building; to eliminate health and environmental hazards not only following the implosion, as the dust settled in the area, but also for task force members as they moved, cut, or otherwise disturbed debris. The shutdown of all utilities also had to be confirmed. Live electrical wires, leaking natural gas, and running water (filling voids, soaking materials, and so on) all posed potential problems for task force members operating at the collapse site. The building had to be cleared of any PCBs and other hazards that could jeopardize member or civilian safety.

Manikins were placed in certain locations to lend realism to the search and rescue operations. Controlled Demolition Inc., the explosives contractor, strategically placed approximately 300 pounds of explosives designed to bring the building down in a precise, controlled fashion. D-Day was set for 0700 hours on August 1, 1998.


The script for the scenario involved the following:

A significant explosion occurred at the Transportation & Safety Building at approximately 0430 hours on August 1, 1998, causing a pancake-type collapse of the entire structure.

A small crew of construction personnel was working inside the building at the time of the explosion and collapse. Unconfirmed reports had at least 15 workers inside the building–many of them working on upper floors, where extensive renovations and structural alterations were taking place.

A terrorist group, which had made previous threats against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, was suspected of having detonated a bomb that caused the collapse.


Because of the limited timeframe of the exercise, PA TF-1 actually began mobilizing before the implosion. At approximately 0500 hours on August 1, 1998, the callout started, notifying members of the incident and requesting that they respond to Harrisburg International Airport (PA TF-1`s point of departure and equipment cache location). Members were processed through specific checkpoints and underwent a medical screening (required at all mobilizations). Equipment was loaded for ground transportation to the collapse site, members were briefed on various aspects of the exercise, and the task force was on it way.


PA TF-1 arrived at the collapse site at 1000 hours. Slight delays were encountered for several reasons: Security personnel required that the permits and liability waivers be on-site before unloading and setup began, and the implosion and debris caused a 16-inch 14-psi gas line to rupture. The local gas company was in the process of repairing it when the task force arrived on-scene.

An “advance team” of task force personnel was designated to perform a structural triage and assessment of the collapsed building or buildings to prioritize work sites and buildings based on the following criteria: damage, occupancy and expected or confirmed number of victims, rescue vs. recovery, difficulty of rescue vs. expected number of “saves,” and so on.

While these activities were being performed, the other task force members unloaded the equipment and set up the base of operations (BOO). The BOO is a “tent city,” complete with a logistics area containing all of the team`s specialized equipment; command, medical, and communications tents; and feeding, sleeping, and sanitation areas for task force members and the search dogs. Since this would be a limited-time exercise, only portions of the BOO were set up.

Task force members were briefed on nine possible victim locations suitable for further operations. The advance team, in conjunction with Technical and Canine Search personnel, identified the sites during structural triage and assessment. Additional sites were later identified during operations, and some of them were worked as well. Rescue squads, each comprised of a number of rescue specialists and led by a rescue squad officer, were deployed to a number of the sites to begin search and rescue operations. The squads were supported by search, haz mat, and structural specialists. The Medical component established rehab areas and addressed members` medical needs. Normal deployment of a task force involves splitting it in two, with each half working a 12-hour shift. A variation available to task force leaders is the “blitz” attack, in which the entire task force is put to work at once to increase the chances of finding and rescuing multiple victims, interfacing with other task forces, and so on. To enhance the training opportunity for all members and, again, to take advantage of the limited time available, a blitz attack was employed.

Task force members removed four of the preplaced “victims”–one from the penthouse area very early in the exercise, one from a void underneath that same area, one from the 12th floor, and one from the area of the elevator shafts. The manikins were located by task force members using fiberoptic search scopes and by rescue specialists physically searching the voids. Some of the victims were discovered while exploring voids and removing rubble by hand. They were quickly extricated and removed to safety. Other discoveries were more complicated. A number of holes were drilled through concrete, allowing the search scopes to view previously inaccessible areas. After confirming the victims` locations, extensive breaching, breaking, and cutting operations were required to create and enlarge openings. Task force members used many of the tools and other specialized equipment carried in the cache, including concrete breakers, concrete coring and hammer drills, concrete- and metal-cutting saws, and rebar cutters to access the victims and facilitate their removal.

The air quality of void spaces in which task force members were operating was constantly monitored, especially during cutting operations with saws or torches. Areas of questionable structural stability were shored or avoided; voids and rubble were also monitored constantly, to detect any movement that would indicate an additional collapse hazard. Fortunately, none of the extrications required the use of air bags or the assistance of heavy rigging specialists and cranes to move large pieces of debris. This would have increased both the difficulty and duration of the extrications. Additional problems encountered during the rescue operations are covered under the Lessons Learned and Reinforced section below.

The victims were packaged (by stokes basket) and removed from the voids. Some of the victims were carried off the rubble with the assistance of rope-lowering systems, to make traversing the rubble and steep slopes easier. Normally, after locating victims but before removing them, the Medical component and/or EMT/paramedic-trained rescue specialists would initiate patient care. This would include primary and secondary surveys, C-spine precautions, oxygen, IV therapy (to reduce complications associated with crush syndrome), and other treatment as appropriate and practical in the void. Rescuers would also administer psychological first aid, reassuring the victims that they would be removed as quickly as possible. The extrication and removal of collapse victims often takes hours, but every effort must be made to minimize the likelihood of aggravating victims` injuries and maximizing their chances for survival. Because of the compressed timeframe of the exercise, some of these steps were curtailed. Also, live “victims” (task force members) were placed in voids throughout the exercise to provide additional training in canine and technical search, extrication, and patient packaging.

Operations continued until the early morning hours of August 2, 1998, at which time equipment was repacked, the BOO was taken down, and all equipment was palletized for transport back to caching. The site was turned over to the demolition contractor, who resumed work on clearing the debris and preparing the site for a new building. Task force members were quickly debriefed and released from the exercise.



Prior planning for an exercise of this magnitude is critical. Logistics often dictate the outcome of an operation, since a task force can do very little without its equipment. At this exercise, we had numerous pieces of new equipment that were being evaluated or had been purchased for the cache recently (some arrived the night before). This equipment still needed to be assembled and tracked through the inventory. Task force members need to understand and adhere to the requisition policies. The “self-serve” method of taking equipment without its being properly accounted for only complicates matters. If it is needed somewhere else (as is often the case), no one will be able to locate it quickly.

Since the normal task force deployment of 62 members was expanded to more than 120 members for this exercise, arrangements had to be made for extra food, water, sanitary and sleeping facilities, and tools and equipment. The Salvation Army and Philadelphia`s Second Alarmers Canteen Unit provided the food.

There was some discrepancy between materials and equipment needed vs. those procured. A task force is designed to be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours, with the exception of lumber for shoring. A small quantity of lumber was brought to the site, but it would have been inadequate for constructing the large size and number of shoring systems needed for a “heavy floor” collapse of this type.


Training on an actual collapse site has certain inherent hazards. Rubble and debris made walking difficult at best. The possibility of secondary collapse was ever present; the consequences of cutting or moving anything had to be considered in relation to the stability of the rubble pile. Unexploded blasting materials could have been present. Weather–including temperature extremes and rain–undoubtedly affected operations. It was sunny and hot with a high in the upper 80s by day, but the temperature dropped to the mid 50s by night. Adequate lighting was required after nightfall. Other hazards present in a real collapse include utilities, construction materials (torches, propane heaters, fuels, adhesives, and haz mats), dust, biohazards, and secondary explosive devices.

Do not overlook the importance of crowd control, both from standpoints of safety and site security. Accountability is also very important. Again, the expanded size of the task force made keeping track of personnel more challenging. The safety of task force members must always take priority and is everyone`s responsibility. There is no standard for structural collapse equivalent to NFPA 1403, Standard for Live Fire Training Evolutions–1997. Safety officers are a must and need to be knowledgeable in all aspects of collapse operations.

Search/Canine/Medical/Haz Mat/Structures/Communications

Locating the manikins by other than visual means was difficult; even visual spotting was tough when the victims were covered with dust and debris. Locating hose dummy “victims” was even more difficult. The task force has at its disposal a number of means by which to locate victims, including fiberoptic search scopes, acoustic and seismic listening devices, search dogs, and even a device sensitive to a human body`s electromagnetic field (demonstrated at this exercise). Most of this equipment, however, works only on real humans. As mentioned above, task force members were hidden in voids to provide realistic training to the Canine and Technical Search components, and medical specialists practiced patient packaging using task force members.

The expanded size of the task force increased the number of members to be cared for by the Medical component. Obviously, preventive medicine works best, and the Medical component did a fine job providing for hydration and other medical concerns.

Hazardous materials specialists were kept busy monitoring the atmosphere of voids. In an actual collapse, this task could be overwhelming without outside support. An occupied office building could present a variety of hazardous materials situations: specialty occupancies within the building such as medical offices, integral parking garages, and dry-cleaning or print shops–all could present additional challenges.

The importance of structural engineering specialists (and rescue specialists) to account for the additional weights of materials and debris and to be more cognizant of how materials and debris will react when moved, breached, cut, or subjected to vibrations cannot be overemphasized.

Communications specialists worked to equip the extra personnel with radios and designate enough frequencies for uninterrupted communications. Scanning radios were needed; scanners were used to monitor and control communications from the command post. Communications, like Logistics, can often make or break an operation. Personnel from Virginia Task Force Two (VA TF-2) from Virginia Beach, Virginia, assisted our communications and technical information specialists during the exercise. Learning from others who have been through the same experiences reduces the learning curve and helps to prevent reinventing the wheel. This works in any specialty area; look to those with experience and training to better your skills and procedures.


Realism, there`s nothing like the real thing! As mentioned earlier under Safety, realistic training and real collapses have more inherent dangers than collapse props and simulations. In addition to the hazards listed above, there are other differences between training and genuine collapse incidents. Furniture and office equipment, tools and construction materials, and automobiles create voids that may contain victims. Knowing the types of collapses will help to identify the probable locations of voids and victims.

Reflex time (the time between task force mobilization and arrival) during a real incident can be significant–measurable in hours instead of minutes. Local responders probably would have addressed a number of safety and logistical concerns before the task force arrived.

Also, some of the stages of the Collapse Rescue Plan, including size-up, surface victim removal, and limited void search, may also have been initiated before the task force`s arrival. The Collapse Rescue Plan, a simplified operational guideline for building collapse incidents, generally includes four steps: (1) survey/assessment and surface search, (2) void search, (3) selected debris removal, and (4) general debris removal.

Enough adequately trained personnel may not be available. If that is the case, qualified local responders or a regional technical rescue team may be used to supplement personnel or perform some assigned tasks. During the training exercise, six rescue squads of eight members were used instead of the normal four squads of six members. During large operations of this type, there is more than enough work for everyone. Tools were spread very thin throughout six squads–even more so than during a normal blitz operation. This requires increased coordination between rescue team managers and rescue squad officers to ensure that needed tools could be relocated quickly between work sites.

The importance of structural engineering specialists, as well as the need for weight calculations of debris and damaged building components, becomes obvious. Concrete rubble weighs approximately 150 pounds per cubic foot, whereas steel weighs almost 500 pounds per cubic foot. Heavy floor structures involving large amounts of concrete and steel demand larger and stronger shoring systems, which can be more difficult to transport and erect. It is often easier and relatively safer to gain access via the top of the rubble pile; however, the stability of materials on which to erect shoring systems becomes questionable. The practice of “shore as you go” and the principle of transferring loads to solid ground through shoring are not as effective if you don`t know exactly where the loads are being transferred. It is sometimes more difficult to start in the basement of some of these collapses, shore as you go, and make access to all voids. Risk/benefit analyses and structural assessment must be ongoing.

Rescuers have three options when faced with damaged building components: avoid, shore, or remove. Avoidance may not be an option if rescues need to be performed. Shoring can be difficult due to the size and weight of building components, the amount of damage and debris, and the availability of shoring materials. Removal may require heavy equipment and heavy rigging specialists and could cause shifting or secondary collapse. All of these factors must be taken into account when forming a plan of action.

Realism brings with it increased difficulty in erecting some shoring systems. Some of the members had never operated at a real building collapse before. With proper instruction, it isn`t too difficult to build a shoring system in the “perfect” conditions of a training tower with plumb walls and level floors and ceilings. However, it is another thing entirely to shore when nothing is level and everything is cracked and debris-covered.

The use of the proper tools can be difficult because of limited access, rubble, or the distance from the rubble pile to a suitable setup site. Hydraulic power units for spreaders and cutters can be cumbersome, and the enormous power units for hydraulic chain saws and rotary saws require considerable space for setup. Hoses for hydraulic power (and water, if required by the tool) must be lengthy; electrical cords for power and lighting may have to be stretched some distance from generators.

Alternative tools can include battery power (e.g., reciprocating saw), powder charge (e.g., powder actuated rebar cutter), gasoline engine (e.g., coring drills and chain and rotary saws), torches (e.g., exothermic, oxyacetylene, and plasma), and manually operated (e.g., hydraulic spreaders, cutters, jacks, levers, and so on). Consider that carbon monoxide or flammable gases/vapors may be collecting in voids or enclosed areas. Atmospheric monitoring for carbon monoxide, oxygen, flammable gases, and so on must be continuous and confined space entry protocols may apply.

Poured concrete over metal decking (Q-decking) is more difficult than precast or poured-in-place concrete to breach. The concrete alone can be several inches thick and may be on top of one or two sheets of corrugated decking. Different tools and techniques may be required to create just one opening, and it can be a very time-consuming operation. The concrete must be cut or broken away first, and then the metal must be cut with saws or torches. The hydraulic chain saw wasn`t designed to cut through metal; it can handle rebar but would probably not fare too well against Q-decking. Approach this obstacle like two separate problems.

Task Force Leadership

This exercise was a major media event. Television and newspaper reporters were already on-scene covering the implosion and remained to cover portions of the task force`s operations. Task force leaders and the task force PIO had to coordinate press releases, interviews, a tour of the collapse site, and even a “victim rescue” for a live 6 p.m. TV news broadcast. In addition, PEMA broadcast a portion of the exercise via satellite to interested agencies around the country. Working with the media would have become an even bigger issue had this been a real explosion and collapse.

The explosion and potential bomb blast create a crime scene. Task force leaders need to interface with local and state police; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; Secret Service; local or federal bomb squads (or military explosive ordnance disposal (EOD); and other agencies. Task Force leaders must ensure site security for the safety of all personnel; access to the site must be strictly controlled to prevent further acts of violence or terrorism and minimize the exposure of others to potential hazards including secondary devices. Leaders must also balance the removal operations with the preservation of the crime scene.

Task force leaders must interact with local authorities, including the local incident commander. The task force is not there to take over an incident; it is there to support the incident commander and assist with the daunting task of searching for and rescuing victims of structural collapse. An incident management system, capable of being expanded to accommodate multiple agencies and accomplish multiple goals, is extremely important.

* * *

The implosion and demolition of the Transportation & Safety Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, provided valuable training and experience for Pennsylvania`s USAR task force. The demolition of any building–and certainly of a large, multistory concrete-and-steel building–creates an incredible training opportunity. Do everything possible to take advantage of this kind of opportunity. Events like the Oklahoma City Bombing; the gasoline-laden pickup truck bombing of a courthouse in Lafayette, Indiana; and the recent theft of 25 tons of ammonium nitrate in West Virginia prove that acts of violence and terrorism can happen anywhere. Parking garages; buildings under construction, renovation, or demolition; buildings on fire; or buildings damaged by a hurricane, snow, an earthquake, a tornado, or old age can collapse, challenging even the largest fire/rescue department. Local fire and rescue personnel have always been and will continue to be the first responders to building collapses and other emergencies. You need to be prepared.

Be proactive and develop plans to deal with these types of emergencies. Train and equip your department for structural collapse operations, or know where to get help. Identify the types of buildings prevalent in your response areas, and assess your department`s strengths and weaknesses. Can you handle the collapse of a small wood-frame house or an ordinary-construction apartment house? Will you be expected to?

Identify outside resources, including contractors, building supply companies, structural engineers, departments of public works, and utility companies. Outside agencies, including neighboring fire departments with heavy rescue capabilities, regional technical rescue teams, and state and federal USAR teams, can also be of great help. Start preparing today. It`s too late when you`re standing before that three-story row house, four-story occupied multiple dwelling, or 12-story office building that`s now nothing but a pile of rubble. n

Thanks to Lieutenant Fred Endrikat, Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, for his assistance in preparing this article.

(Left) The Transportation & Safety Building before the implosion (photo by author) and (right) after the implosion (photo by Cindy Otto).

(Top left) Marking a void during structural triage and assessment. (Photo by Cindy Otto.) (Top right) Gaining access to a rubble pile; traversing rubble and debris requires extreme caution. (Photo by author.) (Middle left) Breaching concrete to access the void where a “victim” was found. Several inches of concrete over the Q-decking make access more difficult. (Photo by author.) (Middle right) Packaged “victim” being carefully removed from rubble pile. (Photo by Cindy Otto.) (Bottom right) Canine search specialist and canine search for “victims” among the ruins. (Photo by Cindy Otto.)


Pennsylvania Task Force One (PA TF-1) is one of 27 Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Forces under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) USAR System.

Its 62 members, who come from throughout the state of Pennsylvania, are specifically trained in the search and rescue of victims of structural collapse and include specialists in a number of fields, including leadership, medical, logistics, technical and canine search, and rescue.

The task force, which can be ready to fly anywhere in the United States within six hours of notification, can also be mobilized by order of the Lieutenant Governor for response within the state of Pennsylvania. n

n MATT SZPINDOR, an 11-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter with the Mt. Lebanon (PA) Fire Department. He is a state-certified Firefighter II and Instructor I and a rescue specialist with FEMA`s Pennsylvania Task Force One (PA TF-1). He has a bachelor`s degree in accounting from the University of Notre Dame.

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