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Building Collapse: Learn the Warning Signs

One of the greatest hazards in firefighting is the threat of collapse in a building. What makes this scenario even more dangerous is that we do not have to be on the inside to get killed. We must be alert on the fire scene, and be aware of the signs of imminent collapse.

Too often we are being hurt or killed as a result of exterior collapse situations. Statistics from the USFA reveal that the number of firefighters lost annually due to residential collapses have tripled since the 1980s — despite a decrease in the average number of annual fatalities during the same time period. Structural collapses can come without any warning, and often are very difficult to predict.

Incident command should consider the following when determining collapse potential:

  • Structural inadequacy, poor construction, illegal or non engineered renovations
  • Fire size and location, and conditions on arrival
  • Age of building
  • Previous fire
  • Fire load to structural members
  • Backdraft or explosions
  • Engineered lumber, truss joists, nail plates
  • Load increase as a result of water load
  • Cutting structural members during venting operations
  • Cracks or bulges in wall
  • Water or smoke that pushes through what appears to be a solid masonry wall
  • Unusual noises coming from building or dwelling
  • Truck operations notice soft or spongy footing
  • Weather extremes

Check out the following close call video in which a wall collapses, narrowly missing firefighters:

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Deputy Chief (retired) Vincent Dunn defines a collapsing structure “as any portion of a burning structure that collapses due to fire damage.” He also points at that, “unlike the other leading causes of firefighter deaths, when a building collapses during a fire, large numbers of firefighters die in a single event.” The truth is in the numbers, and Chief Dunn is right on:

  • Chicago – Twenty-one firefighters killed from wall collapse
  • Brockton, Mass. – Thirteen firefighters killed from truss roof collapse
  • Philly – Twenty-one firefighters killed in a floor and wall collapse
  • FDNY – Twelve firefighters killed in drug store floor collapse

The examples above are a few of the many multiple firefighter fatalities as a result of a collapse. To prevent these types of events, we need to have reliable incident command that constantly evaluates collapse potential.

Remember that initial size-up is key and risk assessment must be determined before any interior attack occurs. As outlined in an earlier column, preplan and know your neighborhood construction in order to make solid decisions. With a good idea of the building construction and an early risk assessment, you can make decisions based on facts not emotions.

Don’t forget that all members need to be equipped with full PPE as well as activated and working PASS devices. Once on scene, maintain accountability for teams working on the fir ground. Position your RIT or FAST team for ease of deployment, being careful not to place it inside the potential collapse zone.

Consider in the event of a collapse to have a department-approved tone that alerts firefighters immediately. Most importantly, you need to establish the collapse zone and enforce it. According to NIOSH, a collapse zone is, “the distance from the fire building equal to the height of the wall. However, since the falling wall may break apart and allow flying debris to cover a great distance than the height of the wall, a safety margin should be considered when establishing a collapse zone.”

Firefighters should not be allowed to advance, attack or operate in any portion of the collapse zone. This includes your aerial ladders, portable units, staging or rehabilitation areas.

Back in 1997, FDNY firefighters suffered a close call during a 6-alarm fire as you can see in the following video:

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We must take collapse dangers seriously to prevent firefighter fatalities. NIOSH recommends printing the following alert, ‘Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Fire Fighters due to Structural Collapse.’

Among the recommendations it makes to fire departments are:

  • Implement and review occupational safety programs and standard operating procedures.
  • Ensure that the incident commander conducts an initial size-up and risk assessment of the incident scene. before beginning interior firefighting.
  • Ensure that the incident commander always maintains accountability for all personnel at a fire scene, both by location and function.

The final video this month comes from South Bend, when two firefighters were injured when a grocery store wall collapsed:

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Jason T. Poremba is the owner and creator of His ‘Close Calls on Camera’ section on FR1 won Best Regularly Featured Web column/Trade category in the 2009 Maggie Awards, which honors the region’s best publications and Web sites. Jason is a 14-year member and captain in an engine company of a volunteer fire department in New York. His specialty training includes rapid intervention, firefighter survival and engine company operations. He has developed a way to train firefighters via the Web in the dangers of firefighter close calls, and dangerous training and firefighting procedures.