BY BRIAN BUTLER AND MARK GREGORY
Working around “moving” machinery occupied with numerous passengers presents various hazards to firefighters, especially since it’s the fire department that is summoned first during an emergency. We can no longer rely just on the experienced company officers and rescue personnel to recognize the dangers associated with these types of machines.
Elevators, trains, and automobiles transport millions of passengers every day. They are examples of “moving” machinery and are usually occupied with numerous passengers. The fire service must start identifying any machine that is passenger occupied and moving as “transportation” machinery, which would include elevators, escalators, passenger trains, and light rail.
“Target hazard” vehicles include buses loaded with passengers, heavy trucks, recreation vehicles (RVs) carrying propane, alternative fuel vehicles, car haulers, sanitation trucks, roll-offs, and school buses.
Vehicles transporting dangerous products or carrying the elderly and handicapped are additional types of high-risk transportation machinery that necessitate a thorough size-up during a fire, an entrapment, or both.
Even amusement parks and county fairs have moving machinery occupied with petrified children who may be stuck upside down on a ride.
Just because the fire department is the first to arrive doesn’t always mean mitigation is completely up to the firefighters. Those not trained or qualified should not be experimenting and relying on luck during these technical incidents. Fire service personnel must recognize that these incidents can and most likely will occur in their response areas. Training and preparation should be prerequisites to serving your communities fully while preventing injuries and mishaps to the victims and the responders involved.
Between one and 100 passengers may occupy a transportation machinery car. Transportation machinery can be heavy, be unpredictable, and have various types of propulsion power.
They may release dangerous products and energy and can easily kill a complacent firefighter. Firefighters are more often around transportation machinery than industrial or agricultural machinery. They respond to calls for stalled elevators, car fires, and vehicle accidents with entrapment.
Let’s look at some common types of machinery firefighters deal with daily and the hazards associated with them.
Elevators can be extremely dangerous. Although 95 percent of the fire department response is a routine passenger removal without incident, this can lead to complacency. Just shutting off the power and then opening a hoistway door near the landing to remove passengers does not make firefighters elevator experts. How far will some firefighters go without extensive training by professionals in the elevator industry?
If firefighters arrive at a stalled elevator call and notice obvious damage to an elevator hoistway door with 25 stories of unprotected open shaft below the car, will they wait for the elevator representative? What dangerous risks would an inexperienced company officer take trying to extricate a few passengers from an unstable elevator damaged during a natural gas explosion in a high-rise apartment building?
There are also dangers present in the elevator machine room (EMR) that can be extremely hazardous to those not familiar with motors, high voltage, shaft vents, and other dangers lurking there.
Working in the hoistway is the most dangerous where moving counterweights and fall hazards are present. Sizing up this machinery is critical for the safety of the passengers and firefighters. Damaged ropes, hoistway doors, smoking belts, difficult extrications, and sudden unexpected movement of an elevator car are signs that the experts should be called. Keep in mind that once you shut down power to the elevator car, you become the brain of that elevator.
Your lack of knowledge of the system’s design features can have disastrous results. For example, the fire department responds to a “space case emergency” in which a person’s foot is stuck between the landing and the elevator car. Most rescuers, after completing lock-out/tag-out, would use one of many tools to lift the elevator car just enough to release the victim.
Although this sounds like a routine operation, the results could be disastrous. The elevator’s safety systems feed information to its “brain.” Although locking out the elevator allows you to have control, remember that every action has a reaction; this may release the safeties within the car and cause it to drop or fall. You must consider supporting the elevator manually as a secondary safety system. A manual hoisting device secured to a high point within the shaft has been used successfully to safely and effectively capture and secure any elevator car movement.
Some fire departments have rapid transit running through their response areas. Whether high-speed, commuter, or light rail service, they are perfect examples of large, dangerous transportation machinery. Freight trains carrying thousands of gallons of diesel fuel sometimes run through rapid transit territory underneath high-voltage catenary lines, which is very dangerous during a locomotive or a tank car fire. Trains are powerful heavy machines that move at high speeds, some more than 100 miles per hour. Passenger rail cars weigh up to 70 tons, and locomotives more than 100 tons.
In addition to the dangers of pin and crush injuries at platforms and collisions at rail crossings, passenger trains bring the possibility of electrocution. Whether it’s a 12,000-volt alternating current (AC), an overhead catenary wire, or a 750-volt direct current (DC) third rail, there’s enough current around these trains to kill firefighters who are carelessly operating hose streams and otherwise coming in contact with a third rail or live catenary wire.
Some trains with diesel locomotives may have up to 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel in their tanks.
For fires, derailments, collisions, and other incidents, the location is another challenge. Trains travel on bridges, over water, underground, through tunnels, and on elevated platforms. You must perform a size-up before beginning suppression or rescue. Whatever the emergency, first determine how the train is powered and whether the emergency is in a passenger car or the locomotive. Is it near electrified rail territory? Can emergency vehicles access the area? What is the procedure to deenergize and stop movement on adjacent tracks? Depending on the incident’s severity, identify the risks to which untrained and unfamiliar firefighters may be exposed.
Man-under-train incidents occur all across the United States. As rescuers, you must ensure during the initial size-up the “risk vs. reward factor.” Is the victim under the train dead or alive? A dead victim is no longer a rescue; a less urgent approach is appropriate. If the victim is still alive, contact the victim to ensure he limits his movements under the train and near any dangerous electrical currents. Would-be rescuers should always consider why this victim is in this predicament. Is this an accident or a failed suicide attempt? Could the victim “lure in” the rescuers and make them additional casualties? Train personnel are highly trained on their equipment; rescuers should take advantage of the knowledge and resources they can provide.
Fires and accidents necessitating extrication demand a quick detailed vehicle size-up, especially at fires with entrapment that need a rapid rescue. You can do most of the size-up looking through the windshield on approach, noting the important factors the scene is giving you.
The officer arriving first due on an understaffed engine company to a vehicle fire with entrapment or a potential explosion with lives at stake must make a fast scan of the scene and critical decisions. A three-person crew will have to start with good apparatus placement, traffic control, additional resources requests, and creative rescue tactics if equipment and staffing are lacking. They will have to identify and mitigate the dangers in front of them. Water supply issues on the roadway necessitate water discipline during suppression. The newest vehicles now use laminated windows on the entire vehicle, rendering the hole punch and halligan strike useless. What’s Plan B? Many rules and standard operating procedures (SOPs) will go out the window; personnel may have to perform numerous tasks simultaneously to achieve success. The size-up will determine the best actions to take.
Firefighters should preplan responses to such incidents so they are better prepared. Understanding the benefits and limitations of your rescue arsenal separates the “street smart” firefighter from the average one. Understanding the spreading points, the cutting points, and the operating areas will expedite safe disentanglements. Always consider “outside the box” options in fire rescue.
Vehicle vs. pedestrian accidents occur every day. When a victim is trapped under the vehicle, often air bags are used. But consider the time and space they need; time is critical in these incidents. Are these tools on your apparatus? Other options can provide safe and effective results in a fraction of the time; they include the bottle jack, the spreader lift, and the fulcrum point or “ladder lift.”
Consider technical rescue involving other specific “target hazard” vehicles such as sanitation vehicles with compactors and trailers with wood chippers that may require disentanglement or recovery operations.
Fires involving recreational vehicles, food trucks, ambulances, compressed natural gas-powered transit buses, car haulers, and landscaping trucks all have the potential for intense fires, explosions, and projectiles.
Accidents with entrapment involving heavy vehicles such as armored trucks, school buses, and cement trucks will need advanced stabilization.
Passenger-occupied machinery extrications can be dangerous. Responders may encounter high voltage, hydraulics, stored energy, flammables, explosives, running fuel, malfunctioning equipment, moving parts, heavy equipment, and falls. Firefighters must be trained to recognize these potential hazards as well as participate in skill sets that will enhance their abilities to safely extricate victims and mitigate the situation successfully. On-site walk-throughs and training for “man vs. machinery” extrication and elevator rescue operations are excellent opportunities for familiarizing personnel with the various types of machinery while they learn proven tactics and tool options to get the job done.
The fire service must recognize the liability issues of untrained firefighters attempting to perform rescues and fire suppression around dangerous complex moving machinery. Just because the fire department arrives first on scene does not mean it alone is responsible for complete incident mitigation. Fire departments must use the resources available to educate and keep personnel safe.
California Department of Public Health Occupational Health Branch. Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation Program (CA/FACE). “A Laborer is Crushed Between a Trash Compactor and Receiving Container.” Case Report 16CA004. April 7, 2017.
BRIAN BUTLER is a captain and 22-year veteran of the Trenton (NJ) Department of Fire and Emergency Services. He worked for 15 years on an engine company and seven years on a ladder company. He has been assigned to every station in the city, having worked on all four truck companies and seven engine companies. He is a member of King of Prussia (PA) Fire Rescue and a hazmat technician and a rescue technician with the Southeastern Montgomery County (PA) Technical Rescue Task Force. He is a level 2 fire instructor. Butler is the owner of UrbanFireTraining.com.
MARK GREGORY is a 32-year veteran of the fire service, a 28-year member of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), and the captain of Ladder 176. He previously was a captain on Tower Ladder 142, Divisions 13 and 15; a lieutenant in Tower Ladder 111; and a firefighter in Rescue 2 and Ladder 132. He instructs at the FDNY and Suffolk County Fire Academies and is a national lead instructor with P.L. Vulcan Fire Training.