CONFINED SPACE: RESCUER OR VICTIM?
THE RESCUE COMPANY
EACH TIME I hear or read about a confined space incident, I am reminded of how naive or uninformed I was about confined space rescue during my early years as a rescue firefighter.
I remember one night in particular. My lieutenant, who always preceded each drill with a “story” (whether he had actually taken part in the incident or was just “grandfathering” it), was in rare form. (This lieutenant had a habit of making multiple-alarm fires out of single-unit operations.) The incident happened only a few years prior, and a few of the members who worked at that scene were still in our unit, which helped add credibility to the story:
It was a mild autumn day when our unit was called for the report of an unconscious worker in a manhole. Upon arrival of the unit, not one but two unconscious victims were at the base of a 12-foot-deep manhole. From questioning other workers at the scene it was determined that one of the victims was actually a “rescuer” who collapsed after entering the manhole.* Why? How could this rescuer have entered the manhole without an SCBA or in-line air supply?
The rescuer who later became a victim questioned the worker who had called for help. The worker had returned from a coffee run and discovered his co-worker lying unconscious in the manhole. He didn’t know what had happened, but he knew that the coworker—a personal friend —had been having medical problems, and so he assumed that the victim had collapsed because of them. The rescuer made a gross mistake: he also assumed. In his eagerness to rescue the victim, he violated a number of safety procedures prior to entering the manhole and became a victim himself.
Our unit had often drilled on confined space rescue; members reviewed the SOP and readied the necessary equipment. Using proper protective equipment, safety lines, air extension lines, and teamwork, the successful rescue of both victims was accomplished without adding to the victim total.
During the past several years, a number of these types of incidents have gained national attention through the media and have been the subject of various fire service articles. Probably the most well-known was the rescue of 18-month-old Jessica McClure after 58 hours of entrapment in an abandoned backyard well in Texas. Only months before, a boy was rescued from another well, this one in New Jersey. In Staten Island, New York, a man walking home across a vacant lot fell into a narrow opening, and had it not been for some inquisitive children, he could have become a grim statistic.
*The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Alert of January 1986 analyzed 8 different confined-space accidents. These eight accidents totaled 16 fatalities and 53 injuries. Nine of the fatalities were of would-be rescuers.
Construction workers falling into pits, shafts, and tunnels often become trapped in confined spaces. Manholes (utility, telephone, sewers, drains, and the like) provide a very likely setting for these types of incidents. Heavy machinery, too, can entrap workers in confined spaces. In the first of two recent accidents of this nature, a worker fell into a mixing machine while he was cleaning it; before he was freed, both machine and victim had to be transported to a medical facility. In the other, a worker fell into a stone crusher, and rescuers had all they could do to remove him from the narrowest of openings. Fortunately for both workers, the machines shut down and neither was dismembered prior to being freed.
Our training teaches us that anytime we are faced with limited means of entry or exit, we are facing a confined space. These spaces can be lacking in visibility and ventilation; they may be deficient in O2; they may contain flammable gases or toxic substances. Furthermore, electrical, mechanical, and physical hazards must also be considered when undertaking confined-space rescue. When reviewing our “mental printout,” what are the questions that need answering? First, WHY? What makes this incident different?
Sometimes we provide assistance to a conscious victim, which makes the incident a relatively easy one to handle.
THE RESCIE COMPANY.
Percentage-wise, though, the majority of confined-space incidents involve unconscious victims and are usually complex operations. Only one thing is obvious: the victim needs assistance. Why did the victim fall? Was he overcome by one of the hazards of confined spaces?
It is not uncommon for confined spaces to be lacking sufficient oxygen. The smaller the confined space, the easier for displacement of oxygen. These spaces should be checked with meters to assess the O2 level of the atmosphere. (Canaries have been replaced with sophisticated meters.) Selfcontained breathing apparatus or air extension systems should always be used, especially when testing by meters is not possible. Professionalism dictates that chances not be taken when doubt exists. Don’t let machismo replace competent. clear, logical rescue thinking.
Using a checklist can help ensure the safety of workers. Strictly adhering to the guidelines will enable workers to perform their tasks with a strong sense of confidence and understanding.
Two utility workers might still be alive today if their company policy had included a similar checklist. We were standing by at the scene of a reported gas leak, a common response for fire department units. A utility worker had entered a manhole to check for the source of the leak. The first engine company officer, following SOP, had ordered a precautionary handline to be stretched. Truckies were checking the surrounding structures for evidence of the gas odor, while rescue company members were setting up their meters to check for vapors in the structures closest to the manhole.
Additional utility workers arrived at the scene and were looking down into the manhole when an explosion occurred. Flames shot out of the manhole 40 feet into the air. Everyone who was within 15 feet of the explosion was knocked off his feet Workers looking into the hole received the full impact of the blast, and two of these workers were killed instantly. The engine company was able to extinguish the fire immediately. Efforts to rescue the worker in the manhole were undertaken.
The worker in the manhole had been in the process of eliminating the ignition sources when he accidently triggered the explosion. The force of the explosion knocked him down, and he received less of the impact than his unfortunate co-workers. He was successfully rescued by firefighters.
An investigation revealed that safety precautions required at incidents such as this one were totally disregarded. Workers failed to ventilate the manhole, did not test for flammable vapors or gases, were not using explosion-proof equipment or nonsparking tools, did not have safety lines or harnesses, and, in their haste to correct the condition, caused the explosion. Since that time, the company has established SOPs, guidelines, a checklist, and strict safety procedures to be followed by workers prior to working in manholes.
Presence of supervisors at the scene is mandatory. The existence of flammable and toxic gases in confined spaces must always be a consideration. Using the proper meters to check for possible dangerous gases must be a part of the operating procedures of all rescue operations. O2 levels, explosive levels, and hydrogen sulfide levels must be checked. Methane is a flammable gas and in sufficient quantities can exclude oxygen. Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless flammable gas, is very toxic, and in moderate concentrations can cause immediate death.
What are some other potential haza ds in confined-space rescue? Attempting to gain entry or egress in itself is a hazard when confined spaces are encountered. These limited openings and spaces require rescuers to adapt and modify not only operating procedures but also equipment. Working in and around physical obstructions in these spaces requires the special expertise and talents that rescue firefighters develop through drilling, training sessions, and actual experience.
Obstructions can be in the form of ladders, piping, or conduits; they may result from an accident or a collapse within the confined space. Working in manholes, caution must be used due to the slippery or wet surfaces that are common in below-grade areas. Manholes are used for electrical conduit, vaults, sewers, drain lines, telephone cables, gas lines, pipelines—you name it, it’s probably in the manhole. Rescue operational plans must include the possibility of facing these additional hazards while operating in manholes. Whenever electrical or mechanical devices involved in confined-space rescue are shut down, a member should be stationed at the power source to ensure that the power is kept off and not restored until approved by the incident commander.
Usually, the larger the operation, the greater the communications problem. The increase of the number of portable radios and the need for information flow, orders, directions, strategies and tactics by both firefighters and officers increases the radio traffic. This problem would seem to be eliminated at confined-space rescue, where only one or two portable radios would be used, but what if we are involved in a flammable or explosive atmosphere? In such a case, explosion-proof radio equipment is mandated. Alternate communications systems such as sound-powered telephones can be utilized effectively in these situations. Voice and eye contact, hand or rope signals, slate boards and chalk boards are other resources that can be substituted in place of explosionproof equipment. Safety and efficiency must be a prime consideration. Your contingency plan must include alternate communication systems.
THE RESCUE COMPANY.
In addition to using nonsparking tools and properly maintained and inspected electrical cords, lines, junction boxes, plugs, and receptacles, explosion-proof lighting, blowers, and ventilation equipment must be part of the operating plans. Eliminating all sources of ignition and reducing the hazards for rescuers must be a major part of the safety plans. A trick used with handlights whenever they are used in possible flammable or explosive atmospheres is to securely tape the switch in the “on” position so that it can’t accidently be moved. It also serves as a reminder that the possibility of explosive or flammable vapors or gases are present. We can never be overcautious when any of these hazards are possible.
Protective clothing should always include full turnouts, helmet, gloves, SCBA, or air extension systems. At times, toxic atmospheres may dictate the use of “entry suits.” These suits are designed to provide protection in varying degrees based on the type of material or hazard that may be encountered. Some of these suits provide in-line air connections that are incorporated into the design of the suit.
Remember to use the checklist, guidelines, and proper protective measures so that the rescuer doesn’t become the victim.
The next article in “The Rescue Company” will discuss in more detail confined-space rescue with regard to tools and equipment, air extension systems, and lessons learned from experiences throughout the country.