Hands-on training in an environment that presents conditions as closely as possible to those encountered in real-life situations is the most efficient approach to training. Rescue training in structural collapse operations is no exception. It is much easier to identify the many potential hazards that can hinder operations while standing in a structure that has collapsed than to view those hazards in photographs.

The site for this intensive, one-day collapse rescue training program conducted at the 1999 Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) consisted of a vacant structure that was knocked down and “reconstructed” to simulate a true collapse scene complete with various types of voids and collapse-related hazards. The instructors placed relief cuts in selected locations throughout the building and then determined the most feasible way to collapse the structure.

The main objective of this training exercise was to introduce the student to the many facets of collapse rescue work. The program was not designed to be an all-inclusive class that will prepare the student for any situation that might arise during this type of operation. No fewer than 80 hours of training are needed to become certified in the basics of structural collapse operations.


The above-average potential for injury in this type of operation necessitates that precautions be taken even before the students can enter the structure. Safety is always a concern, not only while the students are operating but also when the structure is being collapsed and the instructors are setting up the training props.

•Site safety. The entire area must be surveyed even before the structure is demolished. Ground conditions, street and traffic access, overhead hazards, weather-related factors, exposure problems, civilian access, and animal hazards must be considered for the duration of the exercise. including the cleanup and critique phases.

•Equipment safety. Working with all types of equipment and the various tools needed in a collapse environment can be dangerous. The heavy machinery used to knock down the structure, saws, generators, compressors, cutting tools, demolition hammers, and the like can all cause major injuries. Their use must be monitored properly, and precautions must be taken at all times.

•Access. Students should be able to access the building site without much hassle for obvious logistics reasons. Civilian access should be kept to an absolute minimum for safety purposes. The site must be safeguarded for the duration of the training exercise. Access for demolition equipment and fire department vehicles must also be considered. Difficult access will hamper the exercise. If the site is too close to roadways, vibrations from passing traffic present potential dangers.

•Shutdown of utilities. Utilities–generally gas, electric, and water–must be shut down immediately, and the shutdown must be verified before any work commences on the site. This is done to protect all who may be involved in the exercise.

•Lighting. Any time your rescue team is going to enter a collapsed structure, there must be adequate lighting. It makes no difference whether it`s day or night. Lights are needed whenever searching in voids, which is a priority in this type of operation.

•Incident management system. The sooner the incident management system is established, the easier the long-term operation will be. A safety officer, who must capably monitor the stability of the remains of the structure if it becomes necessary, must be assigned at every collapse operation. In addition to watching the ongoing operations, the safety officer must make sure that the various rescue operations are not adversely affecting any other operation in the same or an adjacent area.

•Safety zone. Establish a safety zone at the outset of the rescue operation. It should be larger than the remains of the portion of the structure still standing. As a rule of thumb, the height of the building plus one-third or one-half of the height will work. Staging areas and equipment must be outside this zone for safety`s sake.

•Teamwork. Teamwork is the backbone of any successful rescue operation; collapse is no exception. Personnel must work together at all times up to the very end of the operation. Teams must be given assignments, and work schedules must reflect these assignments; otherwise, there will be duplication of tasks and an inevitable slowdown in operations. Uncoordinated personnel working against each other will cause accidents and present injury hazards for everyone involved. Teamwork must be consistent up to the very end. It`s a matter of safety.

•Monitor the atmosphere. Monitoring must be ongoing throughout the rescue operation. Levels of oxygen, carbon monoxide, and any other hazardous gases that may be present must be monitored.



A two-hour lecture preceded the hands-on portion of the program. Its purpose was to give the students a general idea of the conditions and hazards they would encounter in the collapsed structure. Among the topics covered were safety precautions, team concepts and teamwork, void types, shoring and cribbing procedures, initial first-aid actions, structural marking systems, proper lifting techniques, tool identification, and tool uses in a collapsed structure. The lecture also covered the six-sided approach, the precautions to be taken when searching voids, and shoring (all discussed below).

Six-Sided Approach

A structural collapse entails a three-dimensional rescue operation. The stability of the work area must always be considered. Regardless of the facet of the rescue being performed, the rescuer must always first examine the top (overhead hazards), the bottom (floor condition and stability, debris, and so on), and all four sides by the area (unstable walls, debris, and so on) in which he will work. Any physical changes made to existing debris may affect the surrounding area.

Precautions When Searching Voids

Before entering the collapse structure, rescuers must first be sure that any fire has been extinguished and any potential for fire is addressed. Personnel must not enter the voids if there is any chance that fire may encroach the area in which they may be working or attempting a search.

The potential for secondary collapse is a great concern and has to be evaluated before rescuers go into a search mode. The evaluation should not stop there; while the team is searching, this potential must be continually evaluated throughout the rescue operation.

The type of structure, the condition of the structure before and after the collapse, and the type of occupancy are all issues that must be addressed one at a time. They tell rescuers which structural items to look at, the integrity of the remains of the building, and the types of situations or hazards they may encounter.

Rescuers must know what caused the collapse and the physical forces that were applied to the building. This information helps determine how stable the remaining portion of the building is and the cause of the collapse.


Students were shown only a few types of shoring during this training session because of the time restraints. Since the majority of the class was dedicated to void search operations, the concentration was on the T-shore and box cribbing. Students were given time to become familiar with the characteristics of each type before placing them in position. A few rules of thumb were presented as guidelines as the students began to erect the shores. Since the purpose of rescue shoring is to stabilize the remains of the structure so that rescue operations can be performed safely, the shores must be erected properly and in the right locations to be effective.


An important component of the lecture is the segment on teamwork, which is absolutely necessary in this scenario. There can be no freelancing in a collapse rescue operation. It will greatly compromise safety. The concept of a six-member void search squad and each member`s primary responsibilities were presented (see “The Six-Member Void Search Squad”).


Student Teams

The students participating in the exercise were randomly organized into four teams so that they would have the opportunity to work with other firefighters from various areas of the country, facilitating an exchange of ideas. All engaged in the training exercise were exposed to the different accepted techniques used around the country. There are many ways to accomplish most tasks; an exchange of ideas helps the students to recognize that various procedures can work in difficult scenarios. The objective is to have the students realize that the most important tool a rescuer will ever use in a collapse rescue operation is his brain!

Each team was given an assignment. Assignments were rotated throughout the day so that everyone had an opportunity to participate in each activity.

Structure Sections

The structure was divided into sections, to make things more organized for the duration of the day. In this case, since the students were broken down into four teams, the structure was divided in half, and two teams were assigned to each section. This approach helped keep the operation organized and under control.


The instructors were divided into two groups. Each group determined how it would lay out the props for hands-on stations in its half of the building. Furniture and other props were placed in position, and the building was then collapsed on top of the props.

The instructors then assessed the stability of the remaining portion of the structure. Sometimes, shoring has to be erected for safety reasons. Other times, additional collapsing by hand may have to be done to get the desired effect. The props were then evaluated for their effectiveness. In most cases, some sort of additional maneuvering of the materials is necessary. At this time, each instructor group rearranges its props according to its preferences.

Training Objectives

Each group was given a list of objectives to meet. For this exercise, each team had to do an air bag lift to free a victim, remove debris, erect several T-shores as well as numerous box cribs, and engage in physical hands-on searching in each area of the structure. Each team had to extricate at least one victim from the collapsed voids; in most cases, it was more than one victim.

The students were rotated throughout the day for reasons of efficiency and to give everyone a chance to operate in the different positions. Everyone had a chance to accomplish numerous tasks assigned to each group. Students were able to run through the paces of an actual collapse incident: searching, cutting, stabilizing, and sizing up.

The teams themselves made all the strategic and tactical decisions; the instructors kept a constant eye on them and stepped in only if the operation was unsafe or getting bogged down. The purpose of the day`s exercise was to have the students from different geographic areas work together and share ideas.

A primary objective, as noted, was to have the students realize that thinking is the most important part of a collapse rescue operation. The students were taught to “think” out each problem, develop a game plan, and then implement that plan. Moreover, they were made aware that, just as is true of any other type of incident, a backup plan should always be in place for a collapse rescue operation. In this way, should the original plan run into problems, the backup can be instituted without any loss in operation time. The rescue must go on.

This one-story, wood-frame structure, built in the late 1800s, was used for this collapse rescue training exercise. It had sustained some fire damage and was slated for demolition. The house had seven rooms. One-half the house had a full basement; the other half, a crawl space. (Photos by author.)

A backhoe was brought in for the demolition. Several relief cuts were placed in the floors, walls, and roof so the structure would fall into the desired patterns.

The results of the backhoe work after about 40 minutes.

Safety precautions must be taken before entering the structure and while inside it. Here, firefighters confer on where to place the initial shores before void searching begins.

The Six-Member Void Search Squad

The six-member void search squad is divided into two three-member teams–the search team and the support team. Basically, the first three members will do the majority of the searching; the other three will support the first team`s tool and material needs.

The Search Team

The search team is the first to enter the void in a structural collapse rescue. It consists of the void team officer, the void entry firefighter, and the shoring firefighter. These three individuals will act as one team with the primary function of searching the open voids for victims who may still be alive in the remains of the structure.

•Void team officer. The officer is in command of the entire squad and delegates the different positions to the most qualified of his personnel. The most experienced members should be the mainstay of the search team. There is no substitution for experience.

The officer selects the particular voids to be searched, using information and intelligence gathered in the initial survey pertaining to the areas most likely to contain trapped victims.

After consultation with the other team members, the officer determines which void access will be the most stable and safest.

If a victim is found, the officer must also address the method of patient removal and the egress point. Removing the victim through the team`s entry point may not always be the most advantageous option, depending on the victim`s location. Many times, removing some of the larger sections of debris will open up a better access route. This must be determined by the officer while the patient is being extricated and properly packaged.

•Void entry firefighter. This firefighter is generally the first to enter the collapsed void area. His main objective is to search the voids for the presence of victims and to determine whether other void locations are adjacent to his area. Entering the closest void often leads you to other voids that may be larger and may have victims pinned within them.

The firefighter should start removing any loose debris that may be blocking his way and deterring entry into the void area. If possible, all debris should be removed completely from the void, not just be moved aside. The debris will eventually have to be removed anyway; ideally it should be handled only once.

If a victim is detected, the void entry firefighter must reach the individual as quickly as possible and must not leave the victim. He should ask the victim his identity and relay that information back to the command post immediately. He should then attempt to obtain from the victim/patient as much information as possible, including the following: the type of injuries sustained, the victim`s location within the structure at the time it collapsed, whether anyone else was in the building and, if so, where. The victim may even be able to reveal the cause of the collapse. All this information is vital to the successful and rapid completion of the rescue mission.

•Shoring firefighter. This team member is the second team individual to enter the void area. Generally, if the void entry firefighter has entered the void more than 15 feet, the shoring firefighter can enter the void as well. He assists the void entry member with debris removal when necessary, which should be quite often.

This firefighter also installs any box cribbing or shoring that may be needed to protect the integrity of the void opening and the firefighters and victims. In many cases, shoring can be an extensive undertaking. The void entry and the shoring firefighters work closely; they must operate as a team to accomplish their mission successfully.

The Support Team

These three firefighters are the backup, support, and RIT for the search team. They are responsible for supplying assistance and the needed tools, equipment, shoring materials, first-aid packaging equipment, and the like. They also provide relief for and safeguard the safety of the team members searching for victims inside the voids and among the debris.

•Void expander firefighter. This firefighter, the first member of the support team, generally assists the search team whenever possible. This function`s priorities and tasks will vary according to the collapse operation. Each operation is unique.

In many cases, the void expander increases the size of the void opening to get better access to the area and enable more personnel to enter the void at one time. This also expedites the movement of tools and equipment needed for the safe and expedient removal of the patient.

This firefighter`s function may also include helping the shoring firefighter erect the shores needed to stabilize the void.

•Support firefighter. This firefighter is generally the relay man or the “gofer,” if you will. He brings tools and equipment from the staging areas when necessary. If the staging area is close or other personnel are assigned to those operations, then he can assist in shoring and void expanding, whichever is more productive for the success of the operation.

This position can vary quite a bit, depending on the site and extent of the operation. He must be flexible initially. Until conditions are specifically determined and a course of action is developed, he positions himself near the void opening and awaits orders.

•Tool and equipment firefighter. Believe it or not, this is one of the most important positions on the team. If the proper tools and equipment are not supplied to the void search team, the operation will not be accomplished effectively. The tool and equipment firefighter must set up a staging area as close as possible to the collapse without actually being within it. Tool access must be as convenient as possible.

Many times, he must request additional help when setting up the tool staging area. He must test all tools before they are sent into the void. If they are not working properly, drastic time delays will occur.

This firefighter also establishes a tool log. The supply of tools is limited, and their locations must be known at all times so that rescuers` requests for specific tools may be filled expeditiously.

Tools and lumber were staged in a parking lot adjacent to the collapsed structure. For the class presented at the 1999 Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC), a technical apparatus with onboard generators, supplied by the Indianapolis Fire Department, was used for the duration of the class.

Students had to lay out the tool and equipment cache, organize it, and evenly disperse it among the four student teams.

A team prepares to enter the structure from the outside. Two firefighters stand ready to supply the tools needed to complete the mission.

The portion of the structure left standing. This end was used for exterior shoring and the simulation of severely leaning walls. The results of the building “searches” are on the left.

Two “victims” were discovered in this area. The roof section had to be stabilized securely for the work to progress safely. The roof rafters were cribbed up, stabilizing a large section of the roof, so that the students could safely extricate the “victims.”

The entrance to the basement is properly shored, enabling rescuers to enter and exit the area safely throughout the entire operation.

Students crawling under the crawl space after erecting a T-shore to help support the surrounding area.

A student enters the first-floor area from the basement. Sometimes, it may be easier to access the collapsed structure through the basement area and then penetrate upward.

JOHN O`CONNELL is a 20-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), where he has spent 13 years in Rescue 3. He is FEMA`s lead shoring instructor. He has developed and taught training programs for the FDNY and New York State and instructs frequently across the country as well as in Canada and Japan.

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