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Rapid response: Bridge collapse highlights operational readiness

The tragic incident in Miami, Fla., illustrates the need for training and equipping every fire department for special operations

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The bridge spans eight lanes of one of Miami’s busiest stretches of freeway and the collapse trapped approximately eight to 10 vehicles and pedestrians on foot.

Photo/AP

What happened: While the world watches, Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue and supporting agencies work around the clock to rescue victims from a catastrophic structural collapse. A pedestrian bridge, still in the construction phase, which was just assembled and placed into position on Saturday, collapsed without warning yesterday.

The bridge spans eight lanes of one of Miami’s busiest stretches of freeway and the collapse trapped approximately eight to 10 vehicles and pedestrians on foot with an unconfirmed number of victims. Ten viable victims have been rescued from the rubble with two listed in critical condition and the remaining eight listed with minor to moderate injuries. The number of fatalities is unknown at this time as crews work to clear voids and locate victims.

Crews are faced with analyzing the 950 tons of debris that spreads across 200 feet of freeway. They have to calculate both the stability and the load of all of the sections of concrete while they use search dogs, monitoring equipment and visual searches to locate victims. Once victims are located, they will work with heavy equipment and operators of cranes and track hoes to rig and remove debris.

They will also use breaching, breaking and burning techniques to gain access to void spaces and potential victim locations. Once they have worked their way into these voids, the voids can present as confined spaces. The presence of motor vehicles also means that potentially compromised fuel tanks are high probabilities, resulting in potentially flammable atmospheres. The operation is currently in rescue mode and will continue to remain so until command staff on scene determine that the probability for viable life no longer exists. At that point, the operation would convert to recovery operations and the majority of the dismantling would be done by machinery to reduce risk to rescuers.

Why it’s significant: There are more than 600,000 bridges in the U.S., and more than 50,000 are deemed structurally deficient. More than 188 million trips occur across a structurally deficient bridge every day. While the bridge in Florida was newly constructed, many of the bridges in the U.S. are approaching the end of their design life, contributing to the potential for collapse in any jurisdiction.

Top takeaways on bridge collapse

Here are three takeaways from the bridge collapse in Miami:

1. Maintain special ops operational readiness

These high risk/low frequency events continue to illustrate the demand for fire departments to maintain high levels of operational readiness for special operations. Miami-Dade’s quick response in full force with urban search and rescue technicians, as well as specialized equipment and resources illustrates their commitment to preparedness through training and investment in special ops.

2. Training/readiness saves lives

Many departments struggle organizationally to justify the assets and resources that are required to prepare for technical rescue events. But when they occur, the reality of relying on outside entities to save the day can be costly to the victims. Every second counts and often, rescuers will attempt to make the rescue without the right training and equipment. This often proves futile and can add to the casualty list.

As rescuers watch this tragic event unfold, it is important to apply it to your municipality and organizational readiness. If you are not trained and equipped to respond to special rescue events, it is imperative that you have a plan in place to request the necessary resources.

3. High risk/low frequency events can happen anywhere

Events like this do not discriminate between major metropolitan areas and small outlying communities. If you are a smaller department, consider working with your surrounding departments to develop collaborative training and resources to initially respond to technical rescue events and initiate rescue actions in a responsible manner. If you are a larger department with technical rescue capabilities, renew your commitment to supporting their necessity.

Learn more about collapse rescue

Here are some other articles from FireRescue1 to learn more about collapse rescue:

Dalan Zartman is a 20-year career veteran of the fire service and president and founder of Rescue Methods, LLC. He is assigned to a heavy rescue and is an active leader as a member of both local and national tech rescue response teams. Zartman has delivered fire and technical rescue training courses and services around the globe for the last 15 years. He is also an international leader in fire-based research, testing, training and consulting related to energy storage. Zartman serves as regional training program director and advisory board member for the Bowling Green State University State Fire School. He is a certified rescue instructor, technical rescue specialist, public safety diver, fire instructor II, firefighter II, and EMTP. Connect with Zartman via email.

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