ROXBORO POINTE COLLAPSE TESTS RESCUE SKILLS

BY STEVEN WOODWORTH

On March 6, 2006, a seemingly routine call turned out to be a technical rescue incident in Atlanta that tested the training and skill of all those involved.

Atlanta firefighters were dispatched to 1140 Roxboro Pointe in an upscale northeast neighborhood of the city. Atlanta maintains three companies trained and equipped in technical rescue: Squad 4 is the department’s hazardous materials and manpower unit, and is cross-trained in technical rescue; Rescue Engines 8 and 14 are standard engine companies, trained in technical rescue; Rescue Engine 8 cross-mans the Georgia Search & Rescue unit (GSAR 6), while Rescue Engine 14 cross-mans GSAR 61, the department’s shoring unit.

The only information reported by the caller was that a man had fallen through the front porch of his home and was trapped by concrete. Unsure of the severity of the incident, the dispatcher sent the standard Atlanta Fire Department response of three engine companies (21, 29 and 15), two truck companies (21 and 29), two battalions (3 and 6), and GSAR 6. Squad 4 already was operating at a hazardous materials incident and was unavailable for response, thereby limiting the number of trained personnel responding to the scene. This problem was compounded by the fact that several members on duty that day who are trained in technical rescue were outside of Atlanta attending a trench rescue class (Rescue Engine 14). The personnel problems and numerous other critical factors at the scene made for a challenging incident with multiple lessons learned.

UNSUPPORTED COLLAPSE OF A CONCRETE SLAB

The building involved was a two-story brick single-family dwelling covering approximately 3,500 square feet (photo 1). The structure had a full basement with poured concrete walls that had been built into a hill. The house was approximately 15 years old. The area involved in the collapse was a concrete pad that formed the front porch.


(1) The A side of the structure. Note the leaning ladder placed over the void area. (Photo by Al Terry.)

The initial investigation showed that the concrete slab, which measured approximately 5 feet by 12 feet by 6 feet, had been poured over metal decking, creating an enclosed void space formed by the poured foundation of the house. The slab appeared to have been supported by metal “L” brackets, which had been anchored to the exterior brick wall and had been supported by a framed wooden wall. Apparently 15 years of corrosion had taken their toll on the brackets, and on this day the live load of the victim stepping onto the porch was enough to cause the slab to give way, dropping the victim 15 feet into the void below.

CONCRETE GIVES WAY AS CORRODED BRACKETS BREAK

The “L” brackets on the A side of the structure had given way. This resulted in an unsupported lean-to type collapse of the slab. The slab had broken into three distinct sections, which were hanging over the victim and were supported only by short sections of half-inch rebar tied into the wall of the house itself (photo 2). The friction of the rebar within the slab was all that was keeping the slabs from falling onto the victim and any would-be rescuers at the bottom of the void. As the slab collapsed, it also brought several sections of brick wall down into the void with the victim.


(2) The short sections of rebar were all that were holding the suspended slabs.

Whereas much of the brick that had fallen into the area would pose little problem to the rescuers, three sections of the brick wall had trapped the victim in the void. Two smaller sections had fallen and formed an “A” frame over the head of the victim, while the third, a section measuring approximately 4 feet by 6 feet, was standing vertical across the legs of the victim (photo 3).


(3) Looking down into the void, you can see the slabs hanging over the victim and rescuers. The three sections that pinned the victim are visible. (Photos by Steve Fox.)

 

THE INCIDENT ACTION PLAN

The bottom of the void had only 60 square feet, much of which was occupied by the victim and debris. This limited the number of rescuers who could be deployed in the space. The angle of the slabs, combined with this limited space, left little room for shoring the slabs from underneath. The portions of brick wall over the victim’s head were small enough that they could be easily moved by rescuers operating within the void. The larger section pinning the victim’s legs would require another method. During the collapse, this larger section remained intact; however, the mortar holding the bricks together was compromised, causing the entire section to become unstable.

Because of the severity of the victim’s injuries, it was felt that the larger section pinning the victim should be moved as one piece. Removing the brick in small pieces would take an extended period of time and would slowly release the pressure that was preventing severe hemorrhaging. The victim was in critical condition and required immediate medical attention. The location of the incident, in far northeast Atlanta, would require an extended ground transport time to a trauma center capable of providing the level of care the victim needed. However, there was not a suitable landing site nearby for a safe landing by an air ambulance.

The Atlanta Fire Department has used an incident command system since the early 1980s and has made the transition to the National Incident Management System. To maintain a safe work environment for the firefighters and to address the numerous critical factors simultaneously while maintaining the best interests of the victim, would require an extensive Incident Action Plan.

The first critical factor to be addressed was personnel. Fortunately, several members of the department, including Lieutenant Jason Whidby (GSAR Training), Lieutenant Chris Jackson (GSAR Training), Firefighter John Cambareri (Squad 4, A platoon), Firefighter George Nour (Squad 4, C platoon), and Lieutenant Steve Fox (Gwinnett County Fire Service, Technical Rescue Team), and myself (Rescue Engine 14, A platoon), all trained in technical rescue, had been setting up for an upcoming collapse rescue course that was to be presented within the next two weeks. When we received a pager message about the Roxboro incident, we loaded the additional equipment we were using to set up props for the course into a department vehicle and responded to the scene at Roxboro Pointe.

On arrival at the scene, we reported to the incident commander, Chief Maurice Hill of the Sixth Battalion. Chief Hill advised the communications center that as soon as a hazardous materials incident had been safely stabilized, Squad 4 should be directed to respond to the Roxboro Pointe incident. The crew who had responded from the training site was ordered to check in with the safety officer, Chief Mark McDonnell of the Third Battalion, and with Captain Ken Hale of Rescue Engine 8/GSAR 6.

After a quick size-up of the situation, several recommendations were made to command. The incident would be broken into four main operational groups: Safety would remain as a group under the supervision of Chief McDonnell and would report directly to command in accordance with standard operating guidelines (the Atlanta Fire Department tries to maintain a chief officer in the safety position when conditions permit); Captain Hale would operate as the rescue operations officer for the collapse area; I would be the stabilization team leader and would assess the potential for secondary collapse and assume the responsibilities of stabilization within the void space and Lieutenant Whidby would be assigned as the extrication team leader and would assume the duties and responsibilities of victim extrication.

According to the plan, the extrication team would operate on the A-side of the void while the stabilization team would operate on the B-side, within the structure through the open double door on the structure’s front side. The stabilization team and the extrication team would report to the rescue operations officer (it is standard practice within the Atlanta Fire Department to reduce the span of control during technical incidents).

The third group would be treatment and came under the command of Captain Jimmy Gittens, the platoon paramedic supervisor. This group would address a method to stabilize the severe hemorrhaging that would be encountered after the brick wall was lifted and would maintain an effective airway on the victim, who was becoming increasingly combative because of a possible head injury.

After conferring, all the officers felt that timing was critical to the outcome of the incident. Stabilization had to be accomplished within a timely manner to allow the rescue operation to move forward. Extrication had to be coordinated with transport.

It was decided that the fourth operational group would be the transport group, under the command of Captain Don Pruett. The treatment and the transport group reported directly to command, maintaining the smaller span of control for the rescue operations officer. The section of brick wall pinning the victim would be lifted, and the victim would have to be raised out of the void immediately and placed on a stretcher for transport to the hospital. Many of these critical factors would require companies working within close proximity of each other; coordination of the activities; cooperation among the units operating; and, most importantly, teamwork.

STABILIZING THE SITUATION

After sizing up the situation, it was felt that the only safe way to stabilize the slabs hanging over the victim was to back-tie each slab to the B-side or rear load-bearing wall of the structure. The back-tie method also provided additional benefits: This left more room for the rescuers operating in the bottom of the void, providing enough room so that the section of brick wall trapping the victim could be raised and moved over within the space. The method also kept crews from having to lift the section the full 15 feet out of the void, which would have compromised safety. Perhaps, most importantly, the method saved time.

To accomplish the back-tie, the stabilization team leader requested two companies to enter the structure through the rear entrance. Engines 21, under the command of FAO Doug Riddick, and Truck 29, under the command of Captain Mike Rogers, reported and were asked to remove all the furniture that was between the rear wall and the objective. They also decided to remove all patio furniture from the rear porch to allow for a quicker egress once the victim was extricated. This decision to clear more area than was originally directed proved invaluable later in the incident.

Shortly after the area had been cleared, the rescue operations officer advised the stabilization team leader and the extrication team leader that Squad 4, under the command of Captain Al Terry, was on the scene. Squad 4 was then assigned to the stabilization team. At that time, the stabilization team was operating with the least number of trained personnel. Firefighter Kevin Moburg (Rescue Engine 8/GSAR 6), Firefighter/Paramedic Robert Moorefield (Paramedic Engine 29), and Firefighter Nour were assigned as the first rescue team. They entered the void by way of an an extension ladder. The stabilization team passed one end of an endless loop-lifting sling around the middle slab through a crack between the wall and the slab while maintaining a bight near the top. The sling was then passed under the slab and placed in a choker fashion around the slab (photo 4).


(4) The first slab had a lifting sling applied in a choker fashion. (Photos by Steve Fox.)

Using a half-inch steel shackle, the sling was then connected to a 4:1 mechanical advantage haul system that had been anchored to the rear load-bearing wall by personnel from Squad 4. The slack was taken out of the system until the load was caught by the 4:1 haul system. The haul system was anchored to the rear load-bearing wall using nylon-lifting slings. The slings were placed to construct load-distributing anchors around as much of the wall as was accessible (photo 5). Extreme care was taken to ensure that the loads were only “caught” and not moved during this process. This process was then repeated two more times for each of the other slabs (photo 6). The slabs at this time were considered secure enough for personnel to operate safely within the void space.


(5) The furniture has been removed and the anchor system constructed through the interior of the structure.

 


(6) At this point, all three slabs had been tied off. (Photos by Steve Fox.)

 

EXTRICATION TEAM WORKS THE A-SIDE OF THE VOID

While the stabilization process was taking place, the extrication team was simultaneously working the A-side of the void. A high point was rigged from a leaning ladder placed from the front yard to the second floor of the structure. This would be used to anchor a 4:1 mechanical advantage lifting system for raising the section of brick wall off the victim. It would then serve as an anchor for lifting the victim from the void.

While this rigging was being accomplished, the rescue team was packaging the victim in an LSP halfback and slinging the section of brick wall for lifting. During the work being conducted to sling the section of brick wall, some debris had to be removed to facilitate the passage of the slings. It was at this point that the rescue team noticed a small snake in the void. Firefighter Moburg grasped it with a gloved hand, placed it in a debris bucket, and passed it out to the front yard. As two of the members of the rescue team were performing the rigging tasks, the third member administered oxygen and IV therapy to the victim.

Slinging the large section of brick wall proved somewhat challenging: Since the mortar had sustained some damage during the collapse, this task was likened to lifting a jigsaw puzzle. Several double-loop eye slings were used to accomplish this task (photo 7). Once the extrication team leader was satisfied with all the rigging, the rescue operations officer was notified that both teams were ready. Beacause of the lack of access created by the leaning ladder on the A-side of the void, it was decided that the victim would actually be removed out the B-side of the void through the open double door.


(7) Note the four double-loop eye slings used to sling the larger section of brick wall.

Once the victim was lifted by haul system and extricated from the B-side of the void, his care and treatment was transferred from the extrication group to the treatment group. As soon as the victim was removed from the void, there was an immediate requirement for preparation for transport. The flight paramedics, who were standing by on the inside of the structure just inside the front door, administered a paralytic drug to enable the victim to be intubated for transport to the trauma center. Unfortunately, they had trouble intubating the victim, which was causing an unforeseen delay in transport. Realizing the sensitive nature of the time involved, Captain Gittens intubated the victim and prepared him for immediate transport to the trauma center.

The entire rescue effort would be in vain if the victim could not be transported to a trauma center quickly, and traffic in Atlanta had to be factored into the equation. Therefore, the only feasible method of transport was to airlift the victim. Since no safe landing zone was available at the incident site, which was located on a cul-de-sac, one had to be created. The end of the cul-de-sac would provide a large enough area, but, unfortunately, a large tree was in the center of the cul-de-sac. Therefore command made the decision to have the tree removed. Had this been a small dogwood tree, this would not have been a problem; however, the tree involved was approximately 50 feet tall and 18 feet in diameter; this would be no small undertaking.

Members of Truck 21, under the command of Captain Don Pruett, removed the tree as directed; they also remained on the scene until the cul-de-sac was clear for vehicle traffic should it be required. Once again, the decision to accomplish more than just the original objective given would prove invaluable to the outcome of the incident. This provided a safe landing zone for the helicopter to transport the critically injured victim to a trauma center capable of treating his injuries.

SOME CRITICAL LESSONS ARE LEARNED

When companies first arrived on-scene, they were confronted with an extremely unstable life-threatening situation. Although the critical factors were numerous, they were not perceived as overwhelming. The critical factors were broken down into manageable pieces and dealt with accordingly. Departments that conduct technical rescue operations must be comfortable with working within an incident management system. The only way to get firefighters, company officers, and chief officers to this point is through extensive training and experience. The Atlanta Fire Department has a standard practice of reducing the span of control during technical operations. This paid numerous benefits during this operation; one of the most important was that the communications network was never overwhelmed at any time.

The stability of the slabs was never taken lightly; however, no one at the scene realized just how unstable the slabs were until it was time to wrap up. The stabilization team leader discussed ways of leaving the scene safe with Deputy Chief John McNiel, chief of technical services, and Chief Dennis L. Rubin, chief of department. The recommendation was made to remove all equipment from the void using ceiling hooks, removing the lifting slings from the slabs, and then cutting the rebar, allowing the slabs to fall into the void. The two chiefs believed that this was the safest method for the department members and the public, and they ordered the operation.

Once the slings were removed, Lieutenant Rick Meyers (Squad 4) reached across the void and pulled slightly on the corner of one slab with a ceiling hook. The slabs-all three of them-fell with a thud to the bottom of the void.

The stabilization of the slabs required several lifting slings. The 20-foot endless loop slings would form a choker around the slabs easily. However, the department did not have enough on hand to finish the task. Once the shoring unit arrived, more slings were available to finish the job (during technical operations, officers should call for help early). The double-loop eye slings had to be pieced together to prevent the brick wall from crumbling during the lifting operation. The department has since discussed having a local manufacturer sew some of these slings into a small net to prevent this problem in the future.

These types of operations that require back-ties and heavy lifting should be trained for on a regular basis. Many departments train for basic technical operations on a regular basis, while the backbone of any fire department operation is good basic engine and truck company functions.

Two occasions during this operation illustrated how well-trained, aggressive engine and truck companies could have a dramatic effect on the overall outcome of an incident. The first example during this operation was when the companies took the time to move the patio furniture from the back deck. Later in the incident, when the paramedics were having trouble intubating the victim, the stretcher was moved to the rear deck where there was plenty of room to function. The second example came when crews took the time to clear enough room at the end of the cul-de-sac for the helicopter to land and create enough room to maneuver vehicles. As a result of this action, equipment was brought into the area, and little time was wasted moving other vehicles out of the way. Vehicles were simply pulled farther into the street, saving valuable time.

The incident management system must be flexible and grow during these types of operations. Several times during this operation, the general command staff received pressure from the public to rush the operation. Fortunately, the general command staff resisted the urge to become involved at the tactical level and allowed crews to perform their assigned functions.

The victim arrived by helicopter at the hospital and underwent surgery for extensive injuries. He survived his ordeal and was doing well at the time this article was written. The members of the Atlanta Fire Department stayed on scene and cleaned the interior of the house and returned the furniture to its normal position as best could be remembered. The modern fire service refers to this as customer service; however, most veterans recall when it was just being professional.

STEVEN WOODWORTH is a 23-year veteran of the fire service. He is a captain with the Atlanta (GA) Fire Department, assigned to Rescue Engine 14. He is a member of the Georgia Search & Rescue program, responsible for training. He is an adjunct instructor with the Georgia Fire Academy and an instructor with SAFE-IR, Inc., a training company specializing in thermal-imaging training.

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