Firefighter Safety: A Near Miss Stresses the Need for Chain Saw Safety Training

By MICHAEL J. BARAKEY, DARYL J. FUNAIOCK, AND GARY A. UMPHLETT

A near miss occurred on July 2, 2013, involving a Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department (VBFD) captain (officer) and a jump seat firefighter while they conducted a chain saw operation to remove a tree from the roadway following a motor vehicle accident (MVA). At approximately 2150 hours, the chain saw chain contacted the captain’s bunker pants, causing a three-inch tear in the left kneepad.

Because of the potential of serious injury, the department conducted an investigation per its policy. The investigative team consisted of the battalion chief of health and safety, the shift safety officer, the department’s chain saw safety subject matter expert (SME), and the city’s occupational safety officer. This report provided corrective measures that would reduce the probability of reoccurrence, ensuring the safety of firefighters using chain saws in low light and on unstable footing.

Scenario

On July 2, 2013, VBFD’s Engine 14 (E14) responded to a report of a MVA that resulted in a tree falling on a sport utility vehicle (SUV). E14’s crew consisted of a captain, a jump seat firefighter (cutter), and an operator (driver). On arrival, the captain investigated and discovered that a 40-foot pine tree had fallen across the roadway and landed on top of the SUV. Although the patient had self-extricated, the tree was blocking the roadway.

After discussing with the on-scene battalion chief all options—from leaving the tree on the roadway to awaiting to notify other city departments to respond to remove the fallen tree—we decided that the E14’s crew would cut and remove the tree. This allowed another point of access to the neighborhood. The area to be cut would be a path or single lane large enough for a fire truck and emergency vehicles to access the city street. This would open the roadway and provide a clear area for a wrecker to remove the vehicle.

Operation

Members used helmet lights, portable battery-powered lights attached to their turnout coats, and headlights from on-scene emergency vehicles to provide lighting for the nighttime cutting operation. The cutter removed the chain saw with a 20-inch bar and wood cutting chain from the engine’s compartment and began making downward vertical cuts on the tree, working left to right across the roadway to cut it into smaller sections (also called “bucking”). The captain, standing behind the cutter, placed his hand on the cutter’s shoulder. Direct and verbal contact between the cutter and the officer was required because of the unstable footing. The cutter engaged the chain brake throughout the operation as he repositioned—but not followed—each cut. The cutter would position the chain saw, make a cut, set the chain brake, reposition the chain saw, and repeat the sequence.

Midway through the cutting operation, the captain felt something make contact with his left leg; the captain thought a branch struck his leg during the removal process. The cutting operation was completed, the obstruction was removed, and E14 cleared the scene and returned to service.

The following shift, during morning equipment check off, the captain noticed the damage to his turnout pants (photo 1), which was consistent with a direct strike of a moving chain in the leg area where he felt the strike. The pants were secured, cleaned, and turned over to the health and safety battalion chief for review and investigation. Review of the pants indicated that the saw chain struck the pants during the wind-down stage—not during full throttle or a complete stop.

(1) The captain's turnout pants show physical damage from a chain saw strike while performing a tree removal operation Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department-Multimedia Bureau
(1) The captain’s turnout pants show physical damage from a chain saw strike while performing a tree removal operation. [Photos courtesy of the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department-Multimedia Bureau.]

Following the incident, the department conducted interviews with the captain and the cutter. They reenacted the incident, allowing the captain and cutter to demonstrate the technique and positioning during cutting operations. The movement of the saw and swinging motion that occurred following a cut could have caused the bar and the chain to contact the captain’s leg while the chain was in the wind-down speed. Poor lighting, unstable footing, and not applying the chain brake after each cut and movement cycle contributed to the moving saw’s contacting the captain’s leg.

Recommendations

  • The risk/benefit analysis on whether to remove the tree should have been routed from the incident commander (IC) to the city department designated to handle routine tree removal and mitigation. Consider all options to access a critically injured patient and for other emergency operations that may develop—i.e., flooding or electrical lines down in an area or a neighborhood. Likewise, a frontline engine company doing “routine” tree removal may produce delayed response times to the next call for service or fire in the area.
  • Nighttime cutting operations require extensive lighting. Use all available lighting provided on your apparatus. In this case, the engine had quartz lights available, which should have been used to illuminate the scene. The IC could also have requested lighting from additional apparatus such as an elevated light tower. Helmet lights, headlights, and handlights do not produce enough light for a safe cutting operation.
  • Properly train and retrain on chain saw use. The VBFD requires all members to be certified in chain saw safety training. The initial certification course is 16 hours, and the recertification process is conducted every two years for four hours. During tree cutting and removal operations, the course dictates that operations establish a 10-foot safety perimeter around the cutter. No one shall enter this 10-foot safety perimeter while the chain saw is in operation. The captain was within this zone, serving as the cutter’s backup. The cutter is responsible for the safe operation of the chain saw and must remain aware of his surroundings to ensure the 10-foot safety zone is respected. If branches or debris need to be moved or removed, only the cutter can announce when it is safe for other firefighters to enter the safety perimeter to pull and remove cut branches. The captain should have remained outside the 10-foot perimeter and should not have entered it until the cutter announced the chain brake was engaged and it was safe to enter.
  • Turnout pants are a minimum requirement of personal protective equipment (PPE) for any firefighter who wants to enter the 10-foot safety perimeter. Provide members of your department firm and written direction through a general order or policy that reiterates training and sets minimum PPE for cutting operations. This event demonstrated the importance of proper PPE as part of the “safety net.” Proper PPE is the last line of defense from the moving chain. Even when the power head is producing reduced power during the wind-down chain speed, station uniform pants will not provide adequate protection.
  • Provide safety chaps to firefighters engaged in nonfirefighting-related cutting. Chaps are a minimum standard of PPE for cutters within all city agencies that use chain saws. A pair of chaps costs around $100, and turnout pants cost around $650.

VBFD/VB City Employee Chain Saw Safety Class

VBFD Chain saw safety policy.

Chain saw injuries and deaths usually occur from a lack of knowledge or training; often, they are used in a hurry and while “cutting corners.” Knowing this, and with the potential for career-ending injuries, the VBFD and its Occupational Safety and Health Department implemented a chain saw policy to protect its employees and for the safety of the public. The policy was not intended to interrupt or impede productivity. Employees are not permitted to operate a chain saw until they have successfully completed the two-day chain saw safety training program. Any employee who uses a chain saw shall adhere to this policy without exception; employees who do not follow these guidelines will be subject to discipline.

Safety apparel and responsibility.

Whenever a chain saw is used, employees shall also ensure they have worn the proper safety apparel. The following items are the minimum safety apparel that shall be worn and used whenever operating a chain saw:

  • Chain saw helmet system (firefighters can wear a structural helmet).
  • Safety glasses.
  • Work gloves.
  • Ear protection.
  • Steel toe safety shoes/boots.
  • Chaps or turnout pants (photos 2, 3). Some departments require that the chaps be worn over the turnout pants.
(2) Typical chain saw operation after a storm.
(2) Typical chain saw operation after a storm.
(3) At this incident, the cutter was wearing chaps under the coveralls.
(3) At this incident, the cutter was wearing chaps under the coveralls.

During the chain saw operation, if employees using a chain saw inappropriately or unsafely or the operator feels that the incorrect operation of the saw could damage the saw or injure himself or another employee, the operator has the authority to cease operations of that chain saw immediately.

Safety features and the need for training and reeducation.

Employees operating chain saws must check on the saw every morning or when issued to ensure that the chain saw has three safety features (Figure 1), which follow:

  • Throttle trigger interlock.
  • Chain catcher.
  • Chain brake.
Figure 1. The Three Main Safety Features of a Chain Saw
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Employees shall not operate a chain saw if any safety features are defective or missing. In 2008, the United States Consumer Products Safety Commission reported 27,170 chain saw-related accidents (Figure 2). The average chain saw injury requires 110 stitches. Medical costs for chain saw injuries are estimated at $350 million per year. Workers compensation costs are estimated at $125 million annually.

Figure 2. 2008 Statistics Chart on Chain Saw Injuries Developed by Gransfors Bruks
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Class and certification.

The chain saw operator must have attended two full days of classroom lecture and completed the hands-on training. The first day of training is the classroom lecture, which includes chain saw safety, basic first aid, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). (Firefighters do not receive basic first aid and CPR since they already have medical certification and CPR.) Day two consists of practical hands-on chain saw techniques.

The following practical objectives are covered during the lecture:

  • Parts identification.
  • Chain saw care and maintenance.
  • Safety features and equipment.
  • Protective clothing.
  • Practical evolutions.
  • Preventive maintenance.
  • Chain tensioning.
  • Starting the saw.
  • Safe operation.

After successful completion of this training, the operator receives a certification card as proof of completion, which is good for two years. The operator’s name is placed on the list of approved chain saw operators. At an emergency, the operator now has the authority to check out a chain saw from any storeroom within the city.

REFERENCE

Forest Resources Association Safety Alert, June 2003.

MICHAEL J. BARAKEY is a district chief with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, where he is assigned to personnel and development. Previously, he was assigned to operations and training. He is a hazmat specialist, an instructor III, a nationally registered paramedic, and a neonatal/pediatric critical care paramedic for the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia. Barakey is also a plans team manager for the VA-TF2 US&R team and has a master’s degree in public administration from Old Dominion University. He is an FDIC classroom instructor.

DARYL J. FUNAIOCK is a 37-year fire service veteran and a district chief with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department (VBFD). He oversees VBFD’s South Division. Funaiock is also VBFD’s oversight manager for apparatus procurement and station maintenance and is a safety officer for the VA-TF2 US&R team. He has an associate degree in fire science from Alleghany County Community College and a bachelor of science degree in health and safety management from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

GARY A. UMPHLETT is a 29-year fire service veteran and a captain with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, assigned to Engine 20 B shift. He is also a heavy vehicle operator for the VA-TF2 US&R team. Umphlett helped develop a chain saw and other equipment with a chain saw manufacturer. He is a chain saw instructor for the VBFD and teaches chain saw safety for Spec. Rescue International.

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