The Surfside condo collapse: An operational play-by-play, from deployment to AAR

Detailing the US&R system in Florida, challenges faced by SAR crews, and lessons learned from the catastrophic incident


Following the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida, it was clear early in the incident that additional trained and equipped search and rescue (SAR) personnel would be needed to augment those already on the scene from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR). This began a complex process of identifying, deploying and coordinating resources from across the state – and the country.

By the time the incident transitioned from rescue to recovery, more than 450 SAR personnel from the state of Florida and another 400 SAR personnel from the DHS/FEMA had worked around the clock, 24/7 for 13 days, to locate survivors and remove victims entombed in the rubble.

To comprehend the coordinated efforts in Surfside, it is important to first understand the US&R system in the United States.

By the time the incident transitioned from rescue to recovery, more than 450 SAR personnel from the state of Florida and another 400 SAR personnel from the DHS/FEMA had worked around the clock, 24/7 for 13 days, to locate survivors and remove victims entombed in the rubble.
By the time the incident transitioned from rescue to recovery, more than 450 SAR personnel from the state of Florida and another 400 SAR personnel from the DHS/FEMA had worked around the clock, 24/7 for 13 days, to locate survivors and remove victims entombed in the rubble. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

US&R in the U.S.

The National Urban Search & Rescue Response System began in 1991. Prior to its development, there was no national capability to respond to a collapse of a concrete or steel-reinforced structure.

Following 1989’s massive Loma Prieto earthquake that rocked California’s Bay Area and Hurricane Hugo that devastated South Carolina, it was clear that a national capability must be developed to respond to collapsed structures and rescue survivors. As such, a significant effort was made to develop and implement a system that could handle such large-scale incidents.

Today, the DHS/FEMA National US&R Response System is comprised of 28 US&R task forces strategically located across the United States. These task forces can provide lifesaving SAR capabilities with specially trained and equipped responders for structural collapse incidents. The training and equipment these task forces possess has become the gold standard for other SAR teams to follow.

Florida’s US&R System

Florida has two task forces that are part of the national system, which can be utilized for local and state disasters. On September 11, 2001, however, both Florida task forces were deployed to the World Trade Center, leaving the state without this critical capability at the pinnacle of hurricane season. Because of this, in 2002, Florida embarked on a mission to develop a statewide tiered US&R response capability modeled after the national standard. The Bureau of Fire Standards and Training under the state fire marshal was assigned the responsibility to build the system.

Today, Florida’s US&R system includes the following teams:

  • 2 NIMS Type I US&R Task Forces
  • 1 NIMS Type II US&R Task Force
  • 3 NIMS Type III US&R Task Forces
  • 2 NIMS Type IV US&R Task Forces
  • 50 six-person Light Technical Rescue Teams

The Florida Department of Emergency Management assigned the State Fire Marshal’s Office the responsibility of Emergency Support Function (ESF) 9, Search and Rescue. Under ESF 4, Fire, and ESF 9, all state fire-rescue resources, including US&R, are managed through the Statewide Emergency Response Plan (SERP). This plan was developed by the Florida Fire Chiefs Association (FFCA) from lessons learned after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team walk near the Champlain Towers South condo building.
Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team walk near the Champlain Towers South condo building. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The Champlain Towers South collapse

Fast-forward to the early-morning hours of June 24, 2021. When Miami-Dade County’s Office of Emergency Management was alerted of the collapse, they notified Florida’s State Warning Point (SWP). The SWP in turn notified the appropriate leadership in emergency management, including the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

As the deputy coordinator for the SERP, I was notified of the incident in the early morning hours as well. Later that morning, the director of the State Fire Marshal’s Office contacted me and asked that I represent him at the incident to coordinate the state US&R response.

MDFR units and elements of Florida Task Force 1 (FL-TF1) began work immediately, removing surface survivors and those lightly trapped. Concurrently, the leadership of FL-TF1 began to develop a more robust SAR plan to initiate selected debris removal and look for survivable void spaces. Heavy equipment was requested, including cranes and excavators.

MDFR, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) for this incident, assembled a Type III incident management team (IMT) to take over from the initial incident command resources. The IMT unified with agencies that would ultimately have responsibilities related to this incident:

  • City of Surfside government
  • Surfside police
  • Miami-Dade Office of Emergency Management
  • Miami-Dade police
  • Miami-Dade medical examiner
  • Miami-Dade County government
  • State of Florida
  • DHS/FEMA

As the search plan was being developed, FL-TF1 resources were mobilized to fill the entire Type I US&R task force. Additionally, mutual aid was requested from the City of Miami Fire Rescue to mobilize Florida Task Force 2 (FL-TF2) as a Type I US&R task force.

Working with the IMT, a SAR Group was established under the Operations Section. The SAR Group developed a strategy to utilize additional US&R resources from across Florida through the SERP. This strategy would phase in the following US&R resources over the next 48 hours:

  • FL-TF6, Southwest Florida, Type III US&R
  • FL-TF4, Central Florida, Type III US&R
  • FL-TF3, West Coast Florida, Type II US&R
  • FL-TF5, Northeast Florida, Type II US&R
  • FL-TF8, North Central Florida, Type IV US&R
  • FL-TF7, Northwest Florida, Type IV US&R

The SAR plan established 24-hour work cycles, 12 hours on and 12 hours off, one shift starting at 1200 hrs, the other shift starting at 2400 hrs. This schedule remained for the duration of the Rescue Phase and into the Recovery Phase until the recovery was moved to an offsite location.

Regardless of the “Type” of resource, all US&R personnel were assembled into one large group on each shift, creating 12-14 squads of rescue personnel. Initially, the plan called for the technical search personnel with canine, visual and auditory search capabilities to evaluate established areas. Selected debris removal would take place to uncover any void space. Once the space was cleared, the process would repeat itself.

Challenges and unique circumstances

Crews faced several challenges at the scene of the collapse.

Weather: Besides the obvious hot, humid south Florida weather the rescuers had to endure, daily thunderstorms with accompanying lightning and high winds. While rescuers could work through the typical rainstorm, when lightning and/or high winds accompanied the storm, work was halted and the area evacuated until the weather passed.

Deep-seated fire: A smoldering fire that had begun later in the morning of the first day began to intensify, creating a situation where rescuers could no longer work due to the large volumes of smoke emanating from the pile. This forced the IMT in close coordination with the SAR Group to develop a plan to carefully remove debris to access the seat of the fire and extinguish it. The plan was implemented, and the fire extinguished, allowing SAR operations to resume.

Search and rescue personnel search for survivors through the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo as thick smoke from a fire within the rubble fills the air.
Search and rescue personnel search for survivors through the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo as thick smoke from a fire within the rubble fills the air. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Threat of secondary collapse: The remaining structure presented a constant threat of further collapse and the multiple floors of hanging debris (aka “widow makers”) threatened to break loose. The structure was monitored 24/7 for any movement, and efforts were deployed to secure the large pieces of debris.

Approximately a week into the operation, movement was suspected in part of the existing structure. This forced a “Tactical Pause” and ultimately a new SAR plan that extended the exclusion zone farther from the existing building. With the threat of a tropical storm potentially impacting the area, the IMT made the decision to have a controlled demolition of the remaining structure. A large tarp was extended across the original rubble that was being searched in the event part of the existing building collapsed on the pile during the demolition. At 2230 hrs on July 4, the existing structure was imploded, dropping straight down in its existing footprint, not impacting any of the original rubble. At 2330 hrs, SAR efforts resumed with a sense of relief from many that there was no further concern for secondary collapse.

Respecting religious customs: Many of the occupants of the building were of Jewish faith. The SAR plan included Rules of Engagement that would be used when recovering any victim of the Jewish faith, adhering to very precise religious requirements as to how and what was recovered with the victim. With every rescue operation, there are specific concerns to recognize and follow for the local community.

Toxins: With any collapse, there is the ever-present danger of dust and other toxins being suspended in the air, creating a respiratory hazard. A personal protection plan was put in place requiring all persons working in the hazard area to wear a N95 or N100 mask. Additionally, a decontamination plan included hand- and boot-washing stations as well as laundering of work uniforms. The University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, a partner of Florida’s fire service, along with the IAFF’s Science and Research Section, collected the used masks to analyze the contaminants. To protect rescuers from biohazard contamination, a strict protection plan that incorporated disposable gloves, Tyvek/Saranex suits and decontamination was implemented.

SAR personnel work atop the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla.
SAR personnel work atop the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Management of US&R resources

With the implementation of the SAR plan, it became clear that there would need to be a more robust SAR Group to support the 24-hour US&R operations. Besides a group supervisor, four divisions, a planning manager and a logistics specialist were needed to augment the SAR Group. This cadre of personnel came from two of the task forces on scene.

Further, in preparations for a more long-term operation, with potential rotations of US&R task forces, a request was made to DHS/FEMA for a US&R Incident Support Team (IST). The US&R IST brought trained, credentialed and experienced responders in each of the functional positions. Upon arrival, the IST quickly integrated into each of the respective areas of the existing IMT, and the initial SAR Group was merged into a SAR Branch.

Who is left to respond?

The decision to demobilize the Florida resources seven to eight days into the incident was made for three reasons:

  1. We were in hurricane season and there were potential storms developing in the Atlantic. With all the Florida resources committed to this incident, there were no state US&R resources available if the state was impacted by a storm.
  2. It was not known, as it had never been tested, how long it will take to get the Florida task forces resupplied, rehabbed and returned to readiness.
  3. The type of work being performed 24/7 was labor intensive, and the living conditions for the rescuers was not ideal. Work was anticipated to continue for weeks, and there were “fresh” teams available and ready to respond.

A Demobilization Plan was developed by the IST that would provide for the rotation out of six of the Florida US&R task forces, being replaced by five DHS/FEMA Type I US&R task forces. Because this was a local event involving FL-TF1 (Miami-Dade) and FL-TF2 (City of Miami), the decision was made to have these task forces remain involved in the incident until the end. As part of the demobilization process, personnel from these two task forces were rotated off the work cycle for 48 hours of rest and rehabilitation, then they would return.

Over several Operational Periods, the Florida resources were demobilized, FL-TF1 and 2 members were rehabbed, and five FEMA US&R Type I task forces were put to work. The well-orchestrated Demobilization Plan allowed for a seamless transition of resources while never reducing the number of rescuers working on the site.

Transition from rescue to recovery

The decision to transition from rescue to recovery, specific to SAR operations, was the responsibility of the IMT. This transition is never an easy one, and the decision of when to do it is complex, looking at many factors other than simply the time since the initial collapse. Factors that were considered included:

  • The type of collapse;
  • The presence of survivable void spaces; and
  • External factors, such as the fire and weather conditions.

The transition from rescue to recovery occurred on Day 13, midway through the 28th Operational Period. At 1800 hrs, the families and loved ones of the victims assembled at the site along with clergy from all faiths. All work stopped on the site, and all US&R personnel gathered with the families. Prayer and a moment of silence were held. This was a very moving time – moments conducted with passion and sensitivity, allowing both the families and the rescuers to accept what was happening. After the moment of silence, a horn sounded, and personnel went back to work.

Members of the Coral Gables Fire Department pay their respects at a makeshift memorial to the people killed after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building.
Members of the Coral Gables Fire Department pay their respects at a makeshift memorial to the people killed after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

For the next few days, personnel would maintain the same tempo and effort with the goal of bringing closure to as many families as they could. The five DHS/FEMA task forces were demobilized, FL-TF1 and 2 remained, and the rubble was moved to an offsite location for further investigation. The site was cleared to the bare ground, and 28 days from the day of the collapse, remains of the final victim was located.

In the end, 98 men, women and children perished in this collapse, and 98 were recovered and returned to their families. While it wasn’t the outcome that was hoped for in the early hours and days of the collapse, the efforts of all personnel helped bring closure to the families and friends of the victims.

Lessons learned

There will be many after-action meetings focused on specific areas of responsibility from the AHJ, through the other local entities, the state of Florida and DHS/FEMA. Specific to Florida’s US&R response to this incident, many lessons have been learned.

  • Reflex time for resources: All disasters are local, however, when it is determined that help outside of the normal response capabilities, including regular mutual aid, will be needed, incident commanders (ICs) must factor in the reflex time to get resources on scene and working. Mobilizing a US&R task force takes time, travel time must be factored in, and once on scene, how long until work begins must be considered. On average, from time of activation until the time working took 12-15 hours on this incident. While much of the equipment is stored in a state of readiness, it must be loaded on trucks, and in some cases, trucks must be rented or otherwise obtained, and personnel must be recalled from home or their regular work assignments in the fire department. This time could be reduced if resources are able to mobilize early. This involves a financial commitment that may or may not be reimbursed. Regardless, ICs must always consider the reflex time when requesting resources outside of their local jurisdiction and include this in their incident planning. As with any incident, if you think you will need it, call for it. It’s always easier to turn it around.
  • Management and support of US&R resources: Most local agencies don’t have the bandwidth of trained and experienced responders to augment the management and support resources necessary for this size of a SAR operation. While the IMT had personnel filling the necessary command and control positions, the management, logistical support and documentation needs of US&R resources quickly exceeds the capability of any local AHJ. Consequently, the need for trained and experienced US&R management and support personnel on hand to assist the IMT is critical. The arrival of the FEMA US&R IST provided the necessary personnel to support this level of US&R operations. The IST is not intended to replace an existing IMT but rather support the function they are there for. In this case, search and rescue. This allows the IMT to continue to manage all aspects of the incident.
  • Mental wellness support: Within days of the collapse, the state fire marshal asked for mental wellness support for those effected by this collapse. This was initially accomplished through the Florida Firefighters Safety and Health Collaborative. The collaborative is comprised of trained fire rescue personnel as well as mental health professionals and clergy that have been trained to understand the work fire-rescue personnel perform. The mental wellness function was placed as a Group within the Medical Branch of the IMT. The initial focus was on the SAR personnel and later expanded, upon request, to the families of victims, other workers on the site and the crews of those initial responding units. Access to mental wellness and peer support personnel was available 24/7. All task forces met with these professionals prior to leaving the incident site, and ongoing follow-up is still occurring today with each task force. In the future, the initial communications to personnel as to the presence and purpose of the Mental Wellness Group could be handled better. It took some time for the responders to realize this help was there and, more importantly, to welcome them in. Additionally, like any response asset, plans need to include where this resource will be housed, fed and supported.
  • Operational periods/work cycles: Early into the incident, it was decided to depart from the “traditional” a.m./p.m. Operational Periods/Work Cycles and establish a midnight to noon and noon to midnight cycle. This was done primarily to split the hot, humid daylight hours so that one group of rescuers did not have to work the entire daylight period. This proved to be a great decision; however, this cycle created some confusion with the other resources working the traditional cycle, but all issues were addressed seamlessly. Because the site was so compact, just over an acre in total, all SAR resources were combined and assigned to various Divisions. This proved to be very effective, and because of the standardization of equipment and training, worked effectively. You could not identify which task force was which unless you looked closely at their patch. Everyone was focused on a common goal. Because of the conditions, crews would work for 30-45 minutes and then rotate for rehabilitation while another crew went to work. This cycle continued for the entire operational period. This provided ample time for rescuers to rest, hydrate and cool off before going back to work.
  • Utilization of rental equipment: The Logistics Section of the State’s Office of Emergency Management recognized early the toll the SAR efforts were taking on the task force’s equipment cache. They executed a contract with a private vendor to provide the necessary equipment SAR personnel would need to accomplish their breaching, breaking and debris removal procedures. Not only was each piece of equipment provided in sufficient quantities, any service or repair was accomplished on site. This kept the task forces’ equipment operationally ready and expedited the task force’s ability to return to readiness after demobilization. In the future, especially if it occurs in a less resource-rich area of the state, a cache list of the types and quantities of equipment should be maintained by the State’s Logistics Section.
  • On site re-supply: Anticipating a need for each of the state task forces to require a significant amount of their expendable equipment cache replaced, excluding the breaching and breaking equipment, State Logistics established a centralized method to coordinate the needs and fulfill requests from each task force oftentimes before they left the site. This streamlined the procurement process and expedited the return to readiness of each state task force.
  • Base Camps: Each task force has as part of their cache, the ability to establish their own base camp; however, for an incident this size with this many resources, it would be more efficient to establish a base camp for all resources. Early in the incident, shower and clothes-washing facilities were scarce. Additionally, by using their own individual base camp caches, task forces created a much larger footprint than would be required with centralized base camp.

The collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium presented many challenges. Lessons learned in every facet will lead to changes that will make us stronger. While the mission of US&R is to locate, stabilize and remove survivors trapped in a building collapse, this type of catastrophic collapse did not lend itself to large numbers of survivors. Overall, the mission was a success. There were no serious injuries among the rescuers, and every victim was recovered, helping bring closure to the families, friends and loved ones of all 98 victims who tragically died.

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