2004 PA Church Fire and Collapse: Situational Awareness and Collapse Zone Management

Remembrance:Pittsburgh(PA) Bureau of Fire- Post Fire Collapse and Double LODD

NIOSH Report F2004-17:  Career battalion chief and career master fire fighter die and twenty-nine career fire fighters are injured during a five alarm church fire -Pennsylvania.

On March 13, 2004, a 55-year-old male career Battalion Chief (Victim #1) and a 51-year-old male career master fire fighter (Victim #2) were fatally injured during a structural collapse at a church fire. Victim #1 was acting as the Incident Safety Officer and Victim #2 was performing overhaul, extinguishing remaining hot spots inside the church vestibule when the bell tower collapsed on them and numerous other fire fighters. Twenty-three fire fighters injured during the collapse were transported to area hospitals. A backdraft occurred earlier in the incident that injured an additional six fire fighters. The collapse victims were extricated from the church vestibule several hours after the collapse. The victims were pronounced dead at the scene.

NIOSH investigators concluded that, to minimize the risk of similar occurrences, fire departments should

  • ensure that an assessment of the stability and safety of the structure is conducted before entering fire and water-damaged structures for overhaul operations
  • establish and monitor a collapse zone to ensure that no activities take place within this area during overhaul operations
  • ensure that the Incident Commander establishes the command post outside of the collapse zone
  • train fire fighters to recognize conditions that forewarn of a backdraft
  • ensure consistent use of personal alert safety system (PASS) devices during overhaul operations
  • ensure that pre-incident planning is performed on structures containing unique features such as bell towers
  • ensure that Incident Commanders conduct a risk-versus-gain analysis prior to committing fire fighters to an interior operation, and continue to assess risk-versus-gain throughout the operation including overhaul
  • develop standard operating guidelines (SOGs) to assign additional safety officers during complex incidents
  • provide interior attack crews with thermal imaging cameras

Additionally,

  • municipalities should enforce current building codes to improve the safety of occupants and fire fighters

NIOSH REPORT: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200417.html

Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire: HERE

Pre-Collapse Photo

Recommendation #1: Fire departments should ensure that an assessment of the stability and safety of the structure is conducted before entering fire and water-damaged structures for overhaul operations.

Discussion: Due to the destructive powers of fire, most structures that have been involved in fires are structurally weakened. In this incident, the structural integrity of the bell tower was weakened by a fire of several hours duration, the addition of thousands of gallons of water, and possibly the destructive effect of the backdraft. Analysis of the exterior of the structure should be performed continuously while conducting interior operations. Similarly, before overhaul operations are begun, the structure should be determined safe to work in by the IC and a designated Safety Officer. If necessary, the IC should seek the help of qualified structural experts or other competent persons to assess the need for the removal of dangerously weakened construction, or should make provisions for shoring up load-bearing walls, floors, ceilings, roofs, or as in this case, the bell tower.

Recommendation #2: Fire departments should establish and monitor a collapse zone to ensure that no activities take place within this area during overhaul operations.

Discussion: During fire operations, two rules exist about structural collapse: (1) the potential for structural failure always exists during and after a fire, and (2) a collapse danger zone must be established. A defensive attack was declared within an hour after fire suppression activities began. Part of a defensive strategy is establishing and moving fire fighters outside of the collapse zone.

 A collapse zone is an area around and away from a structure in which debris might land if a structure fails. Immediate safety precautions must be taken if factors indicate the potential for a building collapse. All persons operating inside the structure must be evacuated immediately and a collapse zone should be established around the perimeter. The collapse zone area should be equal to the height of the building plus an additional allowance for debris scatter and at a minimum should be equal to 1½ times the height of the building. For example, since the bell tower was 115 feet high, the collapse zone boundary should be established at least 173 feet away from the church. Once a collapse zone has been established, the area should be clearly marked and monitored, to make certain that no fire fighters enter the danger zone.

Recommendation #3: Fire departments should ensure that the Incident Commander establishes the command post outside of the collapse zone.

In this incident, command suffered a serious lapse after the Incident Commander and several company officers were injured in the collapse. The command post from which the IC manages the fireground must be located in an area outside of the collapse zone. The IC must ensure that the command post is protected from danger so that an effective command structure is maintained throughout the incident.1, 5

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