Within the next few days, and in some cases, within hours, authorities may suspend rescue missions and begin recovery at the site of the collapse of a condominium in the Miami area.
Workers are still sifting through the rubble, listening to and looking for signs of life. Authorities promised not to leave anyone behind. But no one has been found alive since hours after the collapse last Thursday. And over time, families realize that hope is fading — some have referred to their loved ones for days in the past tense.
Experts say the decision to move to a recovery mission is complex and involves hundreds of factors. Among them: Weigh the safety of the rescuer against the possibility of finding a survivor.
Thomas Miller, director of the West Virginia National Volunteer Fire Council, called it “the most difficult decision ever made in the world.”
“When the crew arrives, there are already casualties. Our goal is not to injure the rescue team and increase the casualties to the scene,” he said.
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What factors are involved
According to Firehouse, a media for fire and rescue professionals, the solemn switch from rescue to recovery is “one of the most important decisions an incident commander must make.” During rescue missions, time is important and rescuers are expected to be “exposed to a calculated amount of risk.”
“If it’s physical recovery, time is no longer the dominant factor and the risk to firefighters is unacceptable,” the publication said.
The decision to move to a recovery mission is often made after consulting with engineers, doctors and trauma specialists, Miller said. The crew may also see an already healed body injury to predict the condition of others left in the rubble.
The crew has fought fires that could affect survivors, either directly or through smoke inhalation, Miller said.
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According to Miller, weather conditions are affecting, including the possibility of flooding in pockets in a pile of rubble that may have survivors. On-site teams closely monitor Hurricane Elsa to prepare for the risk of heavy rains and strong winds. However, bad weather can hinder rescue operations and reduce the chances of survivors.
The nature of the collapse is also important, said Jim Spell, a 33-year fire veteran and founder of HAZPRO Consulting LLC, a hazard and safety consulting firm. The collapse of pancakes, such as surfside buildings, can reduce the chances of survivors compared to if the building simply fell.
Buildings are made of different materials of different weights, which can change their chances of survival. Rescuers need to be aware of unstable debris piles and the movement of sand beneath them.
“No one else can imagine all the factors they deal with,” Miller said, saying that the surfside teams are some of the best teams in the world.
The Mexican and Israeli search and rescue teams are internationally known and participate in the Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue Team’s efforts to respond to earthquakes, building explosions and meteorological disasters around the world.
“I don’t think anyone else has the knowledge or the right to guess the decisions they make again. They are the ones who have the live data and details,” Miller added.
How efforts change during recovery
During recovery mode, the team may work at a slower pace, allowing the crew to use heavier equipment. Failure to do so can lead to the movement of debris or hurt the survivors in the rubble.
Before the heavy equipment came in, Miller said he expected the work to be suspended as the crew would pay homage to the victims on the scene and consult with their families. He said the transition from rescue to recovery could cost the rescuer a great deal of emotion.
“We are trained to save and help,” he said. “It is difficult for these crew members to move from rescue to recovery.”
Spell said the decision was disastrous for the family, as it addresses the knowledge that the family’s loved ones are presumed dead.
He said authorities should take the time to answer any questions the family may have, and provide counselors, psychologists and religious leaders to help their loved ones.
“I’m constantly impressed that the surfside team prioritizes their families and gets the information first,” Spell said.
When incident commanders deploy rescuers in unstable and dangerous locations, they must consider the imminent threat of a secondary collapse.
The threat temporarily suspended rescue operations early Thursday, urging search and rescue teams and officials to consider plans for the “probable” demolition of some of the buildings that are still standing.
“If the worst scenario is: I’m worried that if these pillars are really bad, I’ll be back in the parking lot soon,” Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Raid Jadara said Wednesday.
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How does this compare to other disasters?
Despite the setbacks, authorities still hope to find survivors. Surfside Mayor Charles Barckett quoted the case of a woman who was found to be alive 17 days after the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013.
According to the US Army website, after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the search and rescue team led by the Washington Engineer Company’s military district changed to a recovery mission 48 hours later. Genel Gasman became the fifth and last person to be pulled alive 27 hours after the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Rescue operations on the surfside have been going on for over a week.
But on the surfside, Miller said there were some differences from 9/11. The World Trade Center contained more separate structures, more fires, and heavier smoke as a result of the burning of jet fuel.
The surfside fire was less severe and the search and rescue time frame may have been extended.
“There is no fixed time frame that can be applied to all situations,” Miller said. “Each is different in myriad ways.”
Contact NewsNow reporter Christine Fernando (firstname.lastname@example.org) or follow her on Twitter. @christinetfern..
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When will the rescue recover?
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