Within minutes the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue teams were at the building collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside. Reportedly, they were led into the rubble by two volunteer Urban Search and Rescue Structure Specialists.
These very specialized engineers enter the collapsed structure first to find safe entry for first responders. They determine where it is relatively safe, and where it is not. They put up support beams and assist the first responders in finding their way through the maze of concrete and debris to begin their search for survivors.
Today, they are being joined by at least six more Urban Search and Rescue Structure Specialists, all of whom are voluntarily assisting in the emergency response.
These engineers are assisting some of the very best fire rescue professionals in the country. The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue team is the largest accredited fire rescue department in the Southeast and the second largest in the nation. They are nationally and internationally recognized as an elite group of first responders.
But, even in these very capable hands, the risk is enormous.
The building is still shifting. Concrete is still falling. Fires are still burning. Along with the fire rescue teams, these volunteer structure specialists are putting themselves in harm’s way — putting themselves in incredible danger — to keep others safe and able to hunt for the 159 people still reported missing.
This work is so perilous, with these volunteers taking on so much responsibility for the safety of others — without liability protection for themselves — that many employers of engineers capable and willing to volunteer are forbidden from doing so.
Since 2017, Florida has lost 60 percent of these highly trained engineers who volunteer during disasters to help first responder rescue victims.
This is a dangerous trend.
“First responders are exposed to greater dangers when they don’t have an engineer helping them determine the least hazardous means of entry into a collapsed building. They shouldn’t be placed in greater dangers than they already are,” said Andrew Schrader, PE, StS1, Founder, Recon Response Engineering in St. Petersburg.
The American Council of Engineering Companies of Florida (ACEC-FL) and the Florida Engineering Society (FES) have been fighting to get liability protection for Urban Search and Rescue Structure Specialists. Just last week, Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation to provide the much-needed liability protection to these heroes. Unfortunately, the legislation doesn’t go into effect until July 1.
Recognizing the self-sacrifice of these heroes, FES and ACEC-FL Executive Director Allen Douglas said in a statement to The Capitolist today, “On behalf of Florida’s engineering community, we extend our appreciation to the urban search and rescue structure specialist engineers that are on the ground assisting with the Surfside tragedy. These engineers, who serve in a volunteer capacity, are experts at navigating collapsed buildings to clear a path for first responders. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the Surfside community.”
These engineers and others will also work to determine the cause of the collapse.
The governor said today he does not think a determination will be made in the next few hours or days but will come as soon as possible following a thorough investigation.
“We do have engineers on-site,” DeSantis said on Fox News this morning. “Part of that, though, is to assist with the rescue efforts right now. I think they’re focusing on the rescue but obviously this is something that’s very, very important. I don’t know that you’re going to have the answer today or tomorrow, but I do think though it’s important to get that in relatively short order, no doubt.
“I am very proud of those rescue efforts underway. As I understand it, it was hard to even get them to come off their shifts. They had to be pulled off so that they could rest and be able to do it another day.”