Journal Entry 2, October 2010: Confined Spaces: A Quick Drill and Review

By Ron Kanterman

Recently, there was a double tragedy in Tarrytown, New York, where a volunteer firefighter lost his life attempting to rescue an unconscious person in a manhole who happened to be another volunteer firefighter working for the town’s Department of Public Works. A fire department in Indiana was recently fined by the State Department of Labor for violations stemming from an attempted confined space rescue that turned out to be a close call. Two civilians died that day, and two firefighters were overcome in a well pit by acid fumes. Luckily, they were rescued and are alive today. The sole reason the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) wrote and promulgated 1910.146 in the 1990s was because the emergency services, along with those who work in confined spaces regularly, couldn’t police themselves. About 65 percent of those who died in confined spaces were the would-be rescuers--police officers, firefighters, rescue teams, and the like. So history repeats itself.

The most difficult part of confined space rescue is to take the emotion out of it. We get to the scene and tend to act. (We discuss “removing the pressure to act” when responding to acts of violence under the Everyone Goes Home program, in the interest of scene safety. Life Safety Initiative #12 is, Responding to Acts of Violence.) It holds here, too. We have to remove the pressure to act at scenes that could instantly get us in trouble. Entering confined spaces is one of these times.
Your fire department needs to have a standard operating procedure (SOP) or guideline (SOG) for rescues from confined spaces. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are SOPs/SOGs of this type all over the Internet. However, in the meantime, use the following for a drill and review with your crew. Hit the print button and take this one in to the kitchen (You can download it as a PDF HERE). It may also get you on your way to writing a procedure or guideline of your own.
Definition of a confined space: Not normally inhabited by people, with limited means of egress; may have the potential to accumulate materials that could create a hazardous atmosphere.
Examples of hazards in confined spaces: Lack of oxygen, flammable vapors, poisonous gases, engulfment (grains and feed).
Examples of confined spaces that could get us in trouble: Tanks, vessels, tank trucks, manholes, pits, railcars, tank dikes, silos, bins, boilers, underground utility vaults, large ovens, tunnels, pipelines, ductwork, and so on.          
Some simple steps to surviving a confined space rescue:
1.      Assess the scene:
a.      Determine what type of space it is.
b.      Determine what’s normally in the space.
c.      Check for on-scene personnel (workers).
d.      Determine the number of victims.
e.      Determine nature of the injury or illness.
f.        Determine if it’s a recue or recovery.
g.      Check for material safety data sheets (MSDS), if appropriate.
h.     Start a new entry permit (a permit will walk you through the proper steps of a safe entry).
2.      Staffing and equipment
a.      Assess whether you have enough staffing. and call for more help if needed.
b.      Call specialized teams if needed.
c.      Ensure EMS is on the scene.
d.      Use the Incident Command System and an accountability system.
3.      Scene safety
a.      Establish a perimeter. Use law enforcement to assist.
b.      Ventilate the area and space.
c.      Use positive pressure on the space.
d.      Do not use gas or diesel generators near the scene.
e.      Monitor/meter for oxygen and toxic gas levels.
f.        Establish a REHAB area.
g.      Control ignition sources.
4.      Preparing for entry
a.      Lock out and tag any hazardous energy coming into the space. This could be water, gases, electricity, steam, fluids. or other pressure hazards.
b.      Blank off pipes that may allow hazards to flow into the space.
c.      Bleed off any excess pressures.
d.      All entrants must be on a breathing air system.
e.      Don proper personal protective equipment, depending on the space.
f.        Ensure there is a safety line in addition to the tag line on the rescuer and that the rescuer is harnessed and attached to a mechanical retrieval system.
g.      Ensure there is a backup rescue team standing by. Call a FAST, RIT, or RIC that has technical rescue capabilities and equipment.
h.     Monitor the atmosphere at the one-quarter level, the halfway point, and the three-quarter levels in the space and record the readings. If the atmosphere is deemed hazardous, personnel should exit the space until it can be made tenable.
5.      Making entry
a.      All persons at the space, supervising the entry, and the entrant must be recorded on the permit and sign off on same.
b.      A safety plan should be devised and discussed with the incident commander and the safety officer on scene prior to entry.
c.      Ensure there is a communication system in place prior to entry, whether it’s radios, hand signals, or tugging on ropes. Have a backup system in place.
d.      Once inside, determine if it’s a rescue or a recovery.
e.      Determine if the victim can wear a mask.
f.        Ensure air line and rope management are being handled to avoid entanglement.
Don’t wait for a close call or worse. Review your confined space procedures, and make sure everyone knows the drill. Let’s take one more step in protecting our own.

Ron Kanterman is a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees and is a career fire chief in southeast Connecticut. He is an advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and serves as chief of operations for the annual Memorial Weekend ceremonies each year in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He lectures on a variety of topics around the country.

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