Firemen’s Invention Saves Cave-in Victim
At 7:58 a.m. last June 10, Fire Truck Company 89, in the bustling Los Angeles suburb of North Hollywood, got a call:
“Respond to cave-in.”
It was a summons that Company 89 —among the Los Angeles City Fire Department’s 151 truck and engine companies—was uniquely prepared to handle, and had been so for two years.
Siren shrieking, ladder truck 89 and its six men sped 2 1/4 miles to the cave-in in 5-1/2 minutes. The earth collapse was in a four-foot-wide hole being dug for a sewer connection.
“We saw the head and shoulders of one man buried up to his armpits, his head six feet below ground level,” says 89’s commander, Capt. Kennon R. McRee. He said there was another victim buried below him, at his knees. In a second, we had our package unit ready.
The package is an arrangement McRee and his men devised two years ago—to feed compressed air quickly to a buried cave-in victim.
The components used were: the truck’s 50-foot, heavy-duty, garden hose—used for fire fighting clean-up with regular domestic water supply; the hose’s nozzle—like the one you use to water your lawn; a tank of compressed air—the kind a fireman carries on his back, connected to a face mask, to enter smokeor gas-filled buildings. And a metal adapter that links the larger threads of the garden hose and the smaller ones of the air tank. This is the device, thought up by McRee, that makes the life-saving system unique and effective. Furiously spouting air, the nozzle bores swiftly into the loose soil of a cave-in.
“We passed the hose to the man who had his arms free and told him to work it down to where the other man was buried,” says McRee. “The man was hysterical and shouting ’Get me out of here,’ but he had the presence of mind to do what we asked.”
A person can survive without oxygen for only four or five miuntes. Workman Dennis Fisk, 22, had been buried for about 10 minutes, but he had fallen in a crouching position with his hands before his face, giving him a little air space.
The life-giving nozzle went right to his face. Fisk had passed out, but the fresh-air gust revived him. He heard his rescuers’ shovels and voices during the last of the 30 minutes it took to uncover him and get an oxygen mask on him. He was in good condition.
Says McRee: “It was like opening a Christmas present. We didn’t think he’d be alive.”
McRee, 43, is a husky veteran of 20 years in the Los Angeles Fire Department. He has spent the last 15 years in the San Fernando Valley, long the fastest growing part of Los Angeles.
“The area is susceptible to cave-ins because of the loose, sandy soil and the tremendous amount of construction,” he says. “I was on a couple of cave-ins where we couldn’t save the men who were buried. I thought, ‘Gosh, if there was just some way we could give a man air immediately’. We already had a source of air.” Each truck carries 12 compressed-air tanks. Why not, McRee wondered, connect the compressed air to the garden hose?
One of his firemen had a neighbor who had a machine shop. The neighbor made the adapter, with its two sizes of threads, without charge. Truck 89, with permission of McRee’s superiors, has carried it ever since.
McRee says he doubts the idea is patentable, but in any case—“I’d rather see everybody have it and use it.”
If all units in a department had the adapters, he points out, several companies could insert air hoses into a cave-in where there are two or more victims—or a single victim’s position is less well-known than it was in this first rescue with the device.
Each tank contains 40 cubic feet of air charged to 1800 pounds’ pressure per square inch. Each lasts a half hour in normal use, supplying a fireman in a smoky building. At the fast rate of discharge into a cave-in, a tank must be replaced in four to six minutes. But with 12 tanks, one truck company alone has enough compressed air for 50 minutes or more of cave-in rescue work.
Other fire departments and the National Safety Council have inquired about the system.
Says a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department:
“There’s very little doubt that the adapter will become a standard piece of equipment throughout the department.”