Mark van der Feyst
Building collapse is a very real possibility at any structure fire we attend to. From residential structures, to commercial structures or industrial structures, the potential for collapse is present.
We are diligent to instruct our new recruits to always look out for collapse indicators and to maintain or establish a collapse zone whenever operating around any structure.
But there are times when we find ourselves working within these zones and exposing ourselves to the collapse.
Structure collapse logistics
The general rule is to be at least 1.5 times the height of the building away from the structure to allow for a wall to collapse and spread out without hitting any personnel or vehicles.
This practice is not always possible as there are some situations where being that far back from the building will not allow you to operate effectively.
Some properties have a small or short setback from the street with a multistory building – this is seen in one of our videos.
If the trucks were to remain back 1.5 times the height of that building, they would be too far away.
In other cases, we can be back far enough to be out of the way, but still be close enough to be effective. Our other video shows an example of this with the front wall falling, missing the truck parked out front as well as the personnel working around the building.
When a building collapses, there are some warning signs that can be observed. Sometimes, the sounds of collapse emit from the building. Many times, a building collapse is silent, with no sound occurring till after it has started.
I remember one chief officer telling me that while he was walking around a church building that was on fire, he heard a “whoosh” sound behind him, and turned back to see the chimney scattered on the ground.
When we are caught in a collapse, whether small or large, the outcome is never a good one. Usually, we are going to sustain injuries from minor to major, to the worst case, being a fatality. Damage to a fire truck is also going to impact our operations, but that can be replaced. Here we can see the domino effect taking place – the impact of losing a piece of equipment during the operation right through to losing a firefighter to injury or death will bring with it consequences that will be felt on and off the fire ground.
Being situationally aware of our surroundings is one way for us to be alert to any potential collapse of a building. We want to know that when we must clear out from the area, we can do so without any interference. Having an incident safety officer established and diligently observing how the building is behaving and changing also helps. At the least, they can warn the crews working in the area to be aware of the potential hazard or vacate them due to an imminent danger presented.