Is your department prepared for a confined space rescue or recovery? Are you fully aware of all the standards that apply to confined space operations? Do you have properly trained personnel and equipment available, or do you know what resources are available to your department and how and where to obtain them?

On July 21, 1999, the Ridgefield (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to the Lowe Paper Company complex in town. The company, which produces large paper rolls from recycled paper products, has existed in Ridgefield for almost 50 years. The Ridgefield Fire Prevention Bureau has cited the facility numerous times for fire code violations such as continually blocked passageways; inoperative fire suppression systems; open, uncovered floor drainage pits; and structural defects such as unstable roofs and cracked walls. Because of these violations, previous incidents, and preplanning walkthroughs, the department was very familiar with the facility.

Ridgefield Police Department (the first agency on the scene after the call) officers and plant employees told fire department personnel on arrival that a worker assigned to the paper pulp mixing machine was missing. The machine consisted of a large underground tank approximately 100 feet in diameter with an impeller that mixed 2007F water and paper pulp.

Initial efforts to locate the employee focused on the possibility that he might be visiting another employee elsewhere in the complex. During a more extensive search later, a plant employee entered the two- 2 two-foot hatch at the top of the tank in the area where the employee was usually stationed and noticed what he thought was a victim trapped in the tank. It was about an hour since the search for the missing employee had begun.


The Ridgefield police requested assistance from the Bergen County Police Department after the body was discovered. This was in accord with local dispatch guidelines, since the police were not familiar with confined space operations and the possibility that this was a crime scene. The Bergen County Police Department has two officers on duty per shift who are trained to perform body recovery in conjunction with the Bergen County Medical Examiner’s Office. These officers would assist in removing the victim, beginning the initial investigation, and following up during the autopsy phase. Such incidents are limited to DOAs or other deaths involving unknown or suspicious circumstances. This recovery would prove to be very hazardous, challenging, and beyond the scope of what all the involved agencies are accustomed to dealing with.

The Ridgefield police requested the Ridgefield Fire Department units to assist the county police in recovery of the victim. The department assisted by monitoring the tank’s oxygen level and providing extrication/rescue equipment, backup rescue crews, and expertise. It was determined by this time that the victim had been in the tank for almost three hours and that, therefore, this would be a recovery operation.

(1) A rescue worker descends into the tank hatchway. The victim had fallen into the tank through the hatchway and become wedged between the impeller and the inside tank wall. The fire department previously had monitored the tank’s atmosphere to determine that proper oxyen levels were present and that there were no hazardous gases in the tank. [Photos courtesy of the Ridgefield (NJ) Fire Department.]


Plant personnel drained the tank’s contents and shut off all power and water supplies to the tank prior to entry. A radio-equipped firefighter was stationed at the power and water source for the duration of the incident to prevent anyone from turning on the water or electrical service to the recovery area.

The fire department monitored the tank’s atmosphere to determine that the proper level of oxygen was present and to detect the presence of hazardous gases. Plant personnel providing technical support did not feel it was necessary to ventilate the tank or wear SCBA, since the tank contained “only paper and water.” When questioned, they could not guarantee the mixture had not been treated with chemicals. The fire department recommended using a ventilation fan to continuously supply fresh air to the tank. During operations, personnel were frequently rotated, since the temperature in and around the tank was near 1007F for the duration of the three-hour operation. After all readings were found to be within limits, the county police were permitted to make the initial entry.

Additionally, in accordance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) confined space entry guidelines, all recovery and backup personnel used full body harnesses and fixed retrieval lines during operations, backup and rescue crews were in place, and lockout/tagout of the machinery involved was enforced.

(2) During the operation, a fan constantly supplied fresh air to the inside of the tank. The temperature inside the tank remained at almost 100°F during the recovery operation.

The victim was wedged between the tank’s mixing impeller and the interior tank wall. Fire department personnel disconnected the drive shaft to the impeller to gain access to the victim. The drive shaft was located on the exterior of the tank. Removing it enabled crews inside the tank to move the impeller enough to free the victim from this tight area. The tank’s age and the connecting parts made moving the impeller very difficult. Having a heavy rescue company on scene with specialized equipment, such as impact wrenches, cordless reciprocating saws, and assorted wrench and socket sets, assisted greatly in this operation. Power tools were not considered for use inside the tank because of the danger they presented to personnel in the confined space.

After he was extricated from the impeller, the victim was placed in a stokes basket. Recovery personnel then faced the problem of removing the victim vertically through the two- 2 two-foot hatch, the shaft of which extended about a foot or so above the tank’s surface. The tripod normally used for this operation could not be employed, since it was not tall enough to raise the stokes basket high enough to allow it to clear the hatchway extension.

Fire personnel set up a 4-to-1 mechanical advantage rope and pulley system using the roof’s steel I-beams as an anchor point. The victim was removed from the tank.

(3) Emergency personnel set up a 4-to-1 rigging system to raise the stokes basket containing the victim high enough for the basket to clear the hatchway. The tripod usually employed for such operations was not tall enough to permit raising the stokes basket high enough.

Later autopsy reports attributed the cause of death as suffocation from falling into the tank after suffering a seizure. The victim worked on a catwalk that ran above the tank and had to step over the hatch in the course of his duties. The hatch was supposed to be closed but apparently was open at the time. It is believed that the victim suffered a seizure and somehow fell into the tank through the hatchway.


  • Preplan local industrial occupancies, and train personnel accordingly. The Ridgefield Fire Department has made sure that members are more familiar with the other industrial plants in town that have confined space hazards and has updated preplans and training for permit-required confined space entry as mandated under OSHA regulations.
  • Find out who has specialized training (e.g., confined space, water rescue) in your mutual-aid district, and preplan response. Preplanning among local mutual-aid units with properly trained personnel should be in place and used when needed. Although our department did have confined space training, personnel available for confined space, entry, backup, and rescue crews for this operation were limited. As a result of this incident, the department has designated two nearby towns with full confined space rescue crews and equipment to be called in future incidents.
  • Interagency cooperation is essential. Police officers can sometimes be reluctant to take orders from fire department officers. In this case, police personnel attempted to begin recovery operations without using full body harnesses and retrieval lines. Only after discussion with fire personnel did they follow these safety requirements.

It can be difficult for local fire and police departments to work together as a team at an incident instead of just supporting each other (e.g., the police providing traffic control as fire personnel operate at a fire scene). While the police had some experience with victim recovery, they were not used to this incident’s specific entry requirements. Communication established among all involved enabled the incident to proceed smoothly once it began. Interagency training is an effective way to avoid potential problems.

  • Follow proper safety guidelines for the type of incident. Always follow proper operating guidelines for confined space incidents (OSHA CFR 1910.120; OSHA CFR 1910.146; NFPA 1006, Rescue Technician Professional Qualifications-2000; NFPA 1670, Operations and Training for Technical Rescue Incidents-1999; and applicable state regulations). This operation required continuous monitoring of the air inside the tank for appropriate oxygen levels and the presence of hazardous gases. A ventilation fan continuously supplied fresh air to the site, although plant personnel did not think it necessary, and crews were frequently rotated because of the approximate 1007F temperature in the area.

Additionally, backup and rescue crews equipped with full body harnesses and fixed retrieval lines were in place, and lockout/ tagout of involved machinery was enforced.

  • Hands-free, hardwire communications facilitate recovery and communications. Personnel working in confined spaces should use hands-free, hardwired communications when the threat of entanglement is not present. This will keep their hands free for operations and guarantee clear voice communications. They will not have to use one hand to operate a radio, and a portable radio might not transmit well from a confined space.
  • If the incident is definitely a recovery operation, the incident commander should consult with involved agencies before starting operations. Since time is not as urgent a factor at a recovery as at a rescue, operations should be carefully discussed for a thorough and safe recovery before beginning. In a recovery, time is not crucial for the victim’s safety.


Our department’s training usually consists of the basics or “bread and butter” operations so often stressed but sometimes overlooked in today’s fire service. This incident reminded our members of the variety of calls that today’s fire service may receive and that we must be fully prepared to respond to any fire and rescue incident that might arise.

JOSEPH D. CAJZER is a battalion chief with the Ridgefield (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department and a career firefighter with the City of Passaic (NJ) Fire Department.

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