RAND Study Proposes Guidelines to Better Protect Emergency Responders at Large Building Collapses

For Release

April 24, 2006

A RAND Corporation report issued today proposes guidelines to better protect emergency responders from the chemical, biological and physical hazards that exist following the collapse of large buildings, in an effort to reduce the extent of injuries like those suffered by responders at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

The guidelines cover the full spectrum of protective equipment — including clothing, boots, headgear, eye and face protection, gloves, and respiratory protection used by emergency responders. Emphasis is placed on the need for respiratory protection and the importance of selecting protective equipment that does not impede the ability of responders to work and maneuver at a building collapse site.

Hundreds of emergency workers who responded to the terrorist attacks that led to the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City have become permanently disabled from exposures at Ground Zero. To prevent injuries like these in the future, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health asked RAND Corporation to draw up the guidelines proposed today. While the guidelines address the full duration of an emergency response, the emphasis is on protection during the first few hours after a collapse. This is the critical time for rescue operations and is the time when the full extent of hazards is highly uncertain.

“The most challenging risks that emergency responders need protection from are hazardous chemicals that they could inhale,” said Henry Willis, a RAND researcher and lead author of the study. “These hazards are the most difficult to identify and the equipment used to protect responders from them can be the most cumbersome.”

“Response to a large building collapse requires protection different than what emergency responders are typically provided,” Willis added. “The hazards following the collapse of a large multi-story building are larger and more uncertain, and the duration of the response is much longer than usual.”

The guidelines proposed by RAND address how responders should assess hazards, select appropriate protective equipment, and manage safety. The guidelines recommend that:

  • Until hazard monitoring results are available, emergency responders should assess hazards using visual knowledge and readily available information. This includes the presence of dust, smoke, or fire, along with information on the building's structural materials, contents and commercial tenants.
  • Air-purifying respirators should be available to emergency responders working at a collapse site. These respirators use cartridges, weigh less, and last longer than standard firefighter gear that uses an air tank. Responders can use the guidelines to determine which type of respiratory protection is appropriate.
  • Responders who will be treating victims or handling human remains should wear gloves, clothing, and eye and face protection to protect themselves from blood-borne pathogens. While blood, water and airborne diseases can be serious, exposures to these biological hazards are easily identifiable and avoidable.
  • Individuals without respiratory protection who are exposed to the dust cloud from a building collapse should be removed from the site and given medical treatment.
  • Responders without protective equipment should not be allowed to enter hazardous areas on a building collapse site.

In addition to proposing guidelines for selecting and using personal protective equipment, the RAND study addresses associated problems such as logistic support and safety training. For example, the study recommends that:

  • Responders in cities with tall buildings should have quick access to the protective equipment specified in the guidelines.
  • Emergency response planning should include provisions for decontaminating and replacing personal protective equipment, because search and rescue operations may extend over many days.
  • Training for emergency responders should include assessing risk and using protective equipment appropriate to building collapses. This training is needed by everyone likely to be involved in the response effort, including construction and utility workers.

In conducting the study, RAND researchers reviewed all potential hazards that could be present following a tall building collapse, all missions that emergency responders may have to conduct, and the full range of emergency workers who are most likely to respond to large structural collapses. These include police officers; urban search and rescue units; fire, medical and hazardous materials teams; and construction and utilities support personnel.

The report is the fourth in a series of RAND studies examining safety and health risks for emergency responders involving terrorist attacks and natural disasters. It was prepared for the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The study was conducted by the RAND Safety and Justice Program, which is part of the RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment Division. The division conducts research on occupational safety, transportation safety, food safety, and public safety, including violence, policing, correction, substance abuse, and public integrity.

Printed copies of “Protecting Emergency Responders, Volume 4: Personal Protective Equipment Guidelines for Structural Collapse Events” (ISBN: 0-8330-3907-5) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (order@rand.org or call toll free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

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