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Are You Ready?: Part 1 – structural collapse response


December 11, 2007
By Capt. Carlin Riley

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Structural Collapse Response - Part 1

18As the demands for today’s emergency responders increase, are you actively engaged in training to stay current?  Structural collapse is one of those areas that is usually categorized as a “nice to have” discipline and in many cases it is not considered to be a “need to have.”  Consider the consequences if you are not prepared for structural collapse due to fire, flood, natural disaster, terrorism or an act of God.  Ask yourself if it can happen in your jurisdiction and if it does, are you ready for it.  Firefighter safety is also a huge issue.  We, as emergency responders, readily accept that the incidents that we attend present us with the expectation of danger.  We hopefully use our knowledge and skills to reduce those hazards to a minimum.  It’s when we are presented with a large-scale incident or unusual event that is outside our normal training and skills as a firefighter that we put ourselves at higher risk.  Some of these incidents may never happen in your municipality. 

PHOTO COURTESY MIKE WILSON
In early 2007, firefighters were called to the scene of a structural collapse at 12 Ontario St. in Kitchener, Ont. The problem originated with a broken water pipe.

Why prepare?
The likelihood of structural collapse has been proven time and again to be a high priority for risk managers.

Indeed, with heavy snowfall in much of Canada during any given winter, roof collapses are a major concern. Take into account the number of structural fires that you have attended that there was even partial collapse of the structure. 

Any of us, if called upon, know that we would be doing our best to assist and rescue people who were trapped in such a situation, especially one of our own. You’re a fool if you believe that it can’t happen here. The people we serve are expecting us to show up and help them out.  I am not aware of many departments that would say no to a call for help.  So why wouldn’t we want to be prepared?

Who should prepare?
When there is an emergency, people look to firefighters to solve the problem.  Throughout history, we have taken care of just about every type of emergency in every situation known to man.  Structural collapse is no exception.  The local fire department is the first responder, first defence and, in many cases, the only agency that possesses the skills and equipment to deal with the problem.  In Ontario, the Toronto HUSAR team can be requested to attend your emergency.  How soon will you call for them once on scene and how long will they take to respond to your location?  What does this mean, you ask?  You are it, at least for the most crucial time of the emergency!

When to prepare?
Now is the time to prepare.  Oftentimes in the fire service, even those who feel they are progressive still don’t take the time to prepare for the big one.  It is a very unfortunate thing, but many of us feel that it takes a firefighter death to make the changes that move programs forward.  It is the old “it won’t happen to us” syndrome.  It will take work and it will take money but in the end you will be more ready.  When this type of emergency occurs, it will tax your department and community services to the end but if you have at least formulated a plan, this will help to ease some of the stress of the event.

Where is it needed?
If you feel this will never happen in your community and you can sleep at night because of your confidence, please call me because I want to move there.  If you are in the same shoes as the rest of us then please, consider my advice and PREPARE.  You may say, “we live in a very small community and the chances are very low.”  If that is the case, and your budget will not foot the entire bill, join forces with surrounding communities, pool your resources, your funds and make it happen.  Our business is based on the “what if” factor and we all know that we still have to prepare for the worst.

How can we get it done? 
Don’t panic!  Start small and work towards a goal that you realistically set for your department.  I would suggest that you work within a standard like NFPA 1670.  NFPA 1670 sets out a very regimented list of requirements.

There are a number of things that you should consider when starting out.  As mentioned, if you prepare ahead of time you will be much better off.  There is no requirement for specialized equipment; in fact, awareness level does not require any new equipment.  The training can even be very basic.  Train your entire department and consider training the other agencies in your area or at least consider joint training exercises so that when the big one comes you are all versed in how each agency fits into the big picture.  An event in a community such as a structural collapse in a mall, a tornado though the middle of town or even the unthinkable, a terrorist action, could happen and it could happen without warning.  

If you treat all aspects of the job like this, prepare and train for the big one, this will instil confidence in your firefighters and the outcome of these events may be changed.  At the very least, you will have a highly trained, prepared and organized response to what could be the call that changes lives.  We owe this to the ones who have made the ultimate sacrifice and so that the citizens we protect can live knowing they have the best trained and most prepared watching out for them.  All it takes is some interest, initiative and a leader to drive the program. The rest will fall into place.


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