Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on June 25, 2021.

‘Never Seen a Collapse Like This’ 

Former Miami-Dade fire chief and urban search-and-rescue specialist discusses the recent condominium high-rise collapse in Surfside


Watch an NFPA Journal video featuring former Miami fire chief Dave Downey.

Early Thursday morning, a 12-story residential building in Miami partially collapsed, triggering a massive search-and-rescue effort by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. Four people have been confirmed dead, with more than 150 still missing, according to recent media reports.

In an interview with NFPA Journal Friday morning, former Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey, who also serves as the chair of the Urban Search & Rescue Committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), discussed the current situation and the challenges of search-and-rescue operations in general. 
What can you tell us about the current situation in Miami, from a response standpoint? 

Currently, we’re a little over a day since the collapse occurred. After the initial collapse, the goal was to remove any of those surface victims, remove any of those people that might be lightly trapped. Then they brought in search specialists to start to do more specific void searches. That’s been going on, I’d say, for the past 18 to 20 hours. Additionally, search-and-rescue teams include professional engineers who are trained to look at the structure and make determinations for first responders on areas that are unsafe or no-go areas, areas that are safe to go into, and what areas need to be stabilized. There’s a team approach to what’s going on. 

What are some of the specific approaches and tools these search teams use? 

You have search specialists who are running canines trained to pick up the scent of live victims. You have personnel using search cameras they can put into small voids to look for survivors. You have listening devices they can put into areas and listen for survivors. 

When you say some areas “need to be stabilized,” how does that process work? 

They’re bringing in heavy equipment to surgically, very meticulously, start to delayer this rubble pile. They have to be very careful as to not disrupt the stability of everything around it, especially void spaces. These large slabs that you see kind of weighing over the rubble need to be removed or delayered so that hopefully we can uncover potential other void spaces. That’s what’s going on today and probably far into tomorrow. The responders will be engaged in rescue operations until there’s a determination there are no longer any void spaces. 

What is the biggest challenge during these operations? 

The biggest challenge is the safety of the rescuers. We don’t want anybody else to be injured. We don’t want anybody else to be killed. So that’s something always being monitored. The engineers will set up devices that monitor the movement of the building, and those will pick up movement that’s very minimal, inches of movement, to alert them if there’s a potential problem. The rescuers have to take measured risks by looking at where they can operate, how long they can operate, and then pull back if there’s any indication of falling debris or instability.

The collapsed portion of the building, pictured Friday morning. (Miami-Dade Fire Rescue via Twitter)

Is Miami-Dade Fire Rescue well-trained in search and rescue? 

Absolutely. The task force Miami-Dade Fire Rescue sponsors is Florida Task Force 1, which is actually one of 28 teams that make up the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System. So this team is one of 28 strategically located across the country, and they have a tremendous amount of experience. They’ve had a lot of deployment experience locally, regionally, nationally, and even internationally. They’ve also done a lot of training. In the case of a technician for structural collapse, for example, in addition to their regular job, they’ll have another 120 hours of training for structural collapse focused on breaching, breaking, stabilization through shoring, lifting and moving heavy objects. For medical professionals, in addition to being a paramedic or physician, they’ll have 40 hours of training for collapse medical care.

Are any NFPA codes and standards used to train these folks? 

Yes, they receive training specific to their positions. Within a task force, there are 19 functional positions, and many of them are trained to NFPA 1670, Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents, and NFPA 1006, Standard for Technical Rescue Personnel Professional Qualifications. Then you have other members who comprise the hazardous materials team, and they’re trained to NFPA 472, Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents

Describe the process of accounting for potential victims and communicating with their families.

Within Miami-Dade County, our Office of Emergency Management is trained and tasked with fulfilling the responsibility of victim accountability and notification and reunification for families. Number one is establishing accountability. We need to figure out who was supposed to be in this structure and where they are. Then there is the family reunification or notification process. The goal is to try to get that set up in a facility that is remote, but not too remote, from the incident and make it secure. In days gone by, before we really embraced these concepts, what would happen is people would just descend upon the scene, creating a lot of chaos and a lot of drama. So this is a vital component of any mass-casualty incident or large-scale disaster operation. 

We spoke a few years ago after a bridge collapsed in Miami, killing six people. How is that incident different from, and similar to, the current one? 

Well, obviously it was a different type of structure. The debris from the bridge collapse was a lot heavier and more difficult to move. But it was a similar type of collapse—a pancake collapse. It was also similar in the sense that it required a multi-jurisdictional response. So again, like in any large-scale or mass-casualty incident, it was important to establish a unified command of all the players involved.

RELATED: Read the NFPA Journal conversation with Downey about the 2018 fatal bridge collapse in Miami. 

Is there anything you’d like to add? 

I just want to stress how proud I am of the responders. These responders put in a tremendous amount of dedication to get trained and be ready to go. While it’s a devastating disaster, I’m comforted in knowing we’ve got highly trained, highly skilled responders doing what they’ve been preparing for sometimes for their entire careers. My heart goes out to the victims, the families, everyone that’s having to live through this. In almost 40 years in the fire service, I’ve never seen a collapse like this. We’re all going to be very interested to know what caused this building to come down and what we can do to prevent this in the future.

ANGELO VERZONI is an associate editor for NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni.