Under Heavy Load - Cribbing Basic, Part 1

Under Heavy Load - Cribbing Basic, Part 1

Safety 3rd

I vividly remember my experience during CERT basic training, particularly the evening when we delved into the topic of Cribbing and its vital role in extricating individuals from hazardous situations. Throughout the course, our instructor consistently emphasized the paramount importance of safety. After a comprehensive 30-minute discussion on fundamental box cribbing techniques and the effective use of levers, we eagerly moved outdoors to put our newfound knowledge into practice.

The hands-on exercise presented us with a lifelike scenario: rescuing a fire department mannequin trapped beneath a pile of heavy materials. It was an excellent exercise, and it underscored the significance of these skills. Surprisingly, such scenarios are rarely practiced within our organization, making this training even more valuable.

A few years later, our team was invited to participate in a class dedicated to cribbing at the local Fire Academy with an expert in cribbing. The instructor asked what the most important thing was, and everyone responded with “Safety First”, and we were all wrong. The current – and practical – thinking: Safety is THIRD. This is based upon the understanding that when first responders including CERTs are needed the environments are inherently not safe. Thinking Safety first often gives those responding a false sense of security and can potentially create more issues including injuries and potentially death. “Safety third” gained additional traction after Mike Rowe popularized the phrase on his show, Dirty Jobs. He more recently elaborated on words and it’s definitely worth reading his deeper analysis here: https://mikerowe.com/2020/03/walk-me-through-this-safety-third-thing/

 CERT Responders walking to scene

So, what is first? This varies depending on which organization you ask but when you consider the environment you entered it is not necessarily about the patient but equipment and people then safety. Continually evaluating the situation mitigates the risk and provides the best opportunity for a positive outcome.

This is a lot to think about and we had not even started discussing the reasons for cribbing or how to use the correct material to get the desired outcome.

Cribbing allows first responders to stabilize compromised structures, vehicles, or machinery that could collapse or shift unpredictably.  In most cases, CERTs are going to utilize Cribbing for extracting victims that are not a priority zero.

Safety Equipment

Each person on the cribbing team needs to have full Personal Protective Equipment PPE. This includes gloves, eye protection, helmets, and depending on the environment N95 face masks may be needed as well. A pair of knee pads is highly recommended due to your time and position on the ground.

 CERT volunteer donning PPE gloves


Before we ever get to a scene where cribbing would become necessary, we must look at the materials we will use.  Depending on the situation you may be forced to use materials that are laying around at the scene, that is a topic for another conversation. In this case we will be looking at using wood as it is the best material for cribbing for a few reasons.

CERT responders adding cribbing to lift a load

Wood is strong if you have the correct type of wood. It was eye opening when we were told that CCA treated wood was not good to use for cribbing. It is treated with a few chemicals and over time the wood will dry out and warp. This is not good for cribbing as it can make the wood softer, and it will release these infused chemicals making the area slick and potentially cause your cribbing stack to move. The most recommended type of wood is yellow untreated Douglas Fir or Southern Pine.  Not only is this wood strong but it gives you indications visually and audibly when it is overloaded and about to fail. If pressed too hard any liquid will be squeezed out, not a good sign. In addition, it will talk to you before it fails. If you hear it making noise or see liquid coming out it is time to stop and reassess the situation.

The cutting of the wood is also important. Utilizing 4 x 4 and 2 x 4 boards provide the best options. These can be cut into 48” lengths. You can – and should – also cut them into wedges and shims.

Box cribbing stack with wedges


Pry bars and crowbars are the most common items used as levers. Make sure they are the correct bars not tamping, digging bars, you need ones that won’t bend and that are hardened. Other materials can be utilized in an emergency, but special care needs to be taken to ensure that they are suitable for use. The longer the lever, the more mechanical advantage you have at your disposal, provided the lever and fulcrum are set correctly.

CERT volunteer holding lever for cribbing


Leader – This is the person that will gather information and suggestions if necessary but ultimately make the final decision on how the victim will be extracted.


This person can stop all work if they see something that may endanger the extraction and cause further injuries to the victim or injure any member of the recovery team.

Lifting Team

The lifting team should consist of a minimum of two people. Their job is to apply the force with a leaver and focal point to lift the object. 

Cribbing Team

There may be multiple cribbing teams which can be located on both sides of the lifting team. Their job is to use the cribbing materials to capture the efforts of the lifting team.

Medical Team

Their primary focus is the victim. They are monitoring the status of the victim and when the lifting and cribbing teams have raised the object high enough and stabilized it the medical team will remove the victim.

Team Lead

A team without a lead will inevitably wind up aimless and fragmented. The Team Lead’s role is to provide direction, oversight, and accountability. Maintaining a big picture view of the scene is critical, so the Lead should avoid all temptation to get hands-on with the operation.

Cribbing Techniques

Crosshatch Cribbing

This method involves interlocking layers of wooden blocks or cribbing materials, forming a stable grid-like structure. The layers are stacked in opposing directions, maximizing strength, and preventing movement.

Step Chock Cribbing

Step chocks are used to stabilize vehicles or machinery by providing a gradual lifting effect. Rescuers place the cribbing blocks under the object's base, lifting it step by step until it reaches the desired height.

Box Cribbing

A box crib is constructed by stacking cribbing materials to create a rectangular support structure. This method is commonly used when stabilizing unstable walls or supporting heavy loads.

Wedge Cribbing

Wedge-shaped blocks are utilized to lift and stabilize objects, such as vehicles, by inserting them between the ground and the object's base. The angle of the wedge can be adjusted to achieve the desired level of stability. The most important note about this piece of equipment is its use. Only use it to stabilize equipment at various heights. DO NOT TAP it and drive it further in, it will act as a lifting device and shift your load. Only place it in by hand until you feel friction.

It can support how much?

Although there are multiple techniques used for cribbing, the most common that would be utilized by a CERT is Box cribbing.  The FEMA USAR field guide chart below shows the capacity of wood depending on how it is configured.

FEMA USAR Field Guide Cribbing Reference

A properly built crib stack can support incredible loads. The shipping container pictured below is loaded with lumber and estimated to weigh tens of thousands of pounds. Airbags were used for the lift (instead of levers) and untreated pine was used to crib the load. Note that the airbags are a technical apparatus that was manned by trained personnel (i.e. Firefighters) we were onsite to assist and place cribbing. Only touch or use equipment you are trained/certified on.

CERT Responders lifting heavy load with cribbing and airbags
Airbags and box cribbing supporting heavy load

Extraction Processes

To this point we have identified all the components necessary to utilize cribbing for extracting a victim from many different situations. Using cribbing effectively requires proper training and expertise. CERT members must be familiar with various cribbing techniques, and types of materials to use. Safety protocols should be followed meticulously to avoid accidents and further endangering those involved in the rescue operation.

Cribbing Basics part 2 will go into more detail on setting up a rescue from building the lift stack, capturing the lift with a cribbing, and extracting the victim.
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