LA County Fire Department personnel ready supplies for shipment

LA County Fire Department personnel ready supplies for shipment to New Zealand after the 2011 earthquake. California Task Force 2 is an Urban Search and Rescue team consisting of firefighters, paramedics, structural engineers and others.

© Michael Owen Baker/ZUMA Press/Corbis

The scene of a disaster is not a place of order at first glance. Emergency personnel pour in. Bystanders -- often desperate to help – jostle with law enforcement and medical professionals for space. All the while, rescue and triage is taking place for victims.

But it's not just EMTs, firefighters and police officers competing for space. In fact, those professionals would be at serious risk if there weren't also engineers on the scene, surveying and acting quickly to mitigate damage and forestall more danger.

Engineers don't just show up with a fire crew or ambulance, of course. But they might take a class offered through an organization like the Applied Technology Council, after which their contact information would go in a database. The idea being that if a disaster struck, there's a robust and updated roster of trained professionals at the ready for municipalities.

We can't forget that disaster breeds disaster: In cases like a building collapse, there might not be a sole "event," but a series of collapses, falling debris and even the shift of wreckage after the initial activity. All those might spell serious trouble for rescue efforts and the people working on them.

In the midst of this utter chaos, what exactly is an engineer doing on the scene to make sure that no further disaster strikes? Naturally, every situation is going to be quite different when it comes to stabilizing a building for rescue. Is the building made of concrete? Wood? Light steel? Is there water damage? Erosion? Fire? Even very similar situations -- a building collapse from an earthquake or a faulty foundation, for instance -- might present quite different concerns to an engineer.

So let's dive on in, and get to the scene of our building stabilization effort. Predictably, the first thing an engineer must do when stabilizing a building for rescue is to simply size up the building. In fancy engineer speak, this is called ... the building size-up. (Come on, what'd you expect? They're engineers, not poets.)

The size-up isn't just looking at the building and saying something like, "That building looks like it's about to fall down," which is the way my size-up would go. An engineer is going to quickly attempt to assess a few main points: namely, the structural hazards, the victim location and the best way to mitigate damage. This also includes a survey of construction materials, shifting debris and even sounds from the building. (As in, don't write off that creaking, groaning sound coming from the beams as dust settling.)

If an emergency were to occur, engineers would be expected to move rapidly from each structure (something like 10 to 30 minutes per building). A green inspected tag would indicate the place has no restrictions, a yellow tag might mean that there are hazards (and restrictions would be spelled out) and a red tag would mean it's unsafe for entry or occupancy, period.