confined space rescue

Rethinking Using 9-1-1 As Your Confined Space Rescue Plan

Why you should rethink relying on 9-1-1 and outside emergency services to act as your sole confined space rescue plan, and how firefighters should be prepared and trained to respond to confined space 9-1-1 calls.

Workers die in confined spaces every year. And every year, firefighters die trying to rescue workers from these manholes, sewers, tanks, silos and pits. Most workers enter confined spaces with the expectation that they will be rescued if something goes wrong. But if a crew’s only rescue plan is to call 9-1-1 in the event of a problem, that rescue may not be possible.

Take, for example, the case of a welder who entered a confined space from a small opening some 20 feet off the ground via a scaffold. As far as the crew was concerned, the requirements for this permit-required confined space had been met: they had an attendant, an entrant and a supervisor; the space was clearly marked as a confined space; the air was being monitored; the welder was wearing a harness; a tag line, tripod and winch were in place; and the crew had completed a confined space permit. The only remaining requirement was the rescue plan. The crew fulfilled this requirement as they were trained to do, and as they'd always done in the past: They wrote down “Call 9-1-1."

Ultimately, it was a rescue plan that proved unable to save a life. When the welder was electrocuted in the confined space and went into cardiac arrest, there was no way to remove him from the pipe chase – the crew couldn’t drag the large welder over the elevated, horizontal pipes. They called  9-1-1, but a rescue couldn’t be performed in a timely manner. As a result, the welder perished.

We are firefighters. We know it is not easy to move a flaccid body. A 100-pound victim is a struggle for two men, especially if you are trying to lower that victim out of second story window. You are not going to pull a limp adult around, over and through entrapments with a rope, even using a winch. Furthermore, most workers die in confined spaces because of a lack of oxygen. You have only 4-6 minutes to provide oxygen to worker’s brain tissue before they start losing function. Hands-only CPR has increased survivability rates, but you have to be able to get to the victim to start compressions.  

People die in confined spaces because there is no true rescue team on the scene, and many times because “Call  9-1-1” is the only rescue plan. More likely than not, if a person is not breathing, we are not going to get to the scene and affect a rescue in time to save the victim without violating OSHA law and putting our own lives at risk.

The Firefighter’s Limitations

Firefighters are America’s most trusted problem solvers. Arm stuck in a vending machine? We’re there. Strange odor in your home? We’ll be right over. So what would ever give the public the idea that we weren’t ready, willing and able to save you from a legitimate emergency like a confined space incident? Not us, at least not publicly. We are the “can-do” guys.

Some larger departments have developed highly skilled and specially equipped technical rescue teams who can handle confined space incidents, but these departments are few and far between. Some departments have conducted assessments and made the conscious decision not to perform confined space rescue operations. Usually this is a result of a study looking at call frequency (demand), equipment costs and training requirements. Other departments have never addressed the issue, perhaps because no solution availed itself beyond just saying “no.” And unfortunately, some departments still are oblivious to the hazards of confined spaces.

The fact is that for every victim who dies in a confined space, three would-be rescuers die trying to save that victim. These sobering statics have been support time and time again as recently as 2010 when firefighters in Tarrytown, N.Y., Liberty Township, Ind., and Middletown, Ohio, were involved in confined space rescue attempts that killed or hospitalized the would-be rescuers. Why? Because it’s not in the nature of the firefighter not to help someone in trouble. The term “viable victim” is a term used frequently in training, but short of obvious mortal injury, most firefighters have a tough time making the call that a victim is no longer viable.

Perhaps equally alarming is the fact that we unknowingly or unintentionally expose ourselves to these situations. Have you ever received a call at the station from a local entity to inform you that they are making a confined space entry? I have. The reason some workers are doing this is so that they can legitimately put a check mark next to the confined space permit section that says “Standby Rescue Team” – it’s usually right next to “Rescue Plan” where they have written “call  9-1-1”. What’s even more concerning is that many don’t bother to call – they simply check the box and write  9-1-1.

One safety director of a large, international design and build contractor had this to say about his planning for multiple confined space entries every month: “We always make self rescue the first option, then we back that up with non-entry rescue, and if we have to we will hire a rescue team to stand by.”

He added, “If a contractor or facility is putting “Call  9-1-1” as their rescue plan, they are only planning for a body recovery.”

OSHA’s Perspective on “Call  9-1-1”

If the facilities in your area are putting “Call  9-1-1” as their confined space rescue plan, then OSHA states they have to ensure the responding units have met these specific requirements in 29 CFR 1910.146 Confined Space:

  • “Evaluate a prospective rescuer’s ability to respond to a rescue summons in a timely manner.” What is “timely”? Once again, brain death starts in 4 to 6 minutes.
  • “What will be considered timely will vary according to the specific hazards involved in each entry.” If you are responding to a facility that contains hazardous materials, especially toxic inhalation hazards, the danger of the confined space grows exponentially. Trying to maneuver in a confined space wearing an SCBA is ill advised and limits your time to work in the space and escape.
  • “Evaluate a prospective rescue services ability, in terms of proficiency with rescue-related tasks and equipment, to function appropriately while rescuing entrants from the particular permit space or types of permit spaces.” To meet this standard, your engine crew would have to do a scenario at the facility in which you rescue a full size mannequin from the space.
  • If the entrants are required to wear respiratory protection to enter the confined space OSHA says this in 29 CFR 1910.134 Respiratory Protection: “Requires that that employers provide a standby person or persons capable of immediate action to rescue employees wearing respiratory protection while in work areas defined as IDLH atmospheres.”

I don’t know of any fire departments that are willing to take rigs out of service to do standby confined space rescue work. I also don’t know of any that will be able to make it to the scene and assemble a confined space rescue in 4 to 6 minutes.

The Firefighters’ Solution

Honesty and training are perhaps the best solutions firefighters have for this complex issue:

Be honest with your local businesses. When they call and state they are entering a confined space, make sure they know what your rescue response will be, so they can make an educated decision about the safety of their employees. All firefighters talk as if they can handle anything that comes their way. It’s part of our culture, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. That confidence, and our expectations of each other, is what keeps us sharp and motivated to improve. It also leads to false advertising.

Make sure everyone – dispatchers, firefighters and fire officers  – know what your response times and capabilities are. Clearly convey this information to local facilities and those that call to inform you of an entry. If they know you are 4 minutes away on your best day, and you will still have to get through the plant and assemble gear to effect a rescue, they may think differently about putting “Call  9-1-1” as their rescue plan.

Training should start with familiarizing firefighters and fire companies with the OSHA standards. This knowledge base will allow you to speak intelligently with plant safety directors when doing inspections and pre-plans. I would start with The United States Department of Labor website. It is easy to use and has explanations of all the confined space standards. Confined space work originates in industry, and industry is the best resource for training.

Train your fire companies in basic confined space awareness. This way, they will understand what the permit and accompanying paperwork is showing them when they arrive on the scene. The entry log and rescue plan should answer: How many entrants are in the space? How long they have been in the space? Are there atmospheric or engulfment concerns? What are the current atmospheric readings? Has lockout/tagout been completed, and who has the keys?

Train your firefighters to do non-entry rescue. In all of the years I have worked confined space rescue in industry and the fire service, I have never encountered a confined space where victim rescue was as simple as pulling on a rope. I have, however, been involved with more than one grain-silo rescue where that was the plan and it failed. Attaching ropes to entrants may make it easier for rescuers to find them, but it is not typically a way to perform the rescue. If that rope is attached to a haul system, or a portable winch, our odds of accomplishing rescue are greater. Educate your firefighters on the use of a basic cable winch and the “Davit” arms they are attached to. There should also be a rescue pole (a telescoping rod with an attachment on the end that holds a carabineer tied to a rope) on the scene and firefighters should be trained in its use.

Additional Training Resources

Establish a relationship with your local industries. Many facilities have trained confined space entry teams and conduct scenario based training annually. Find out who has that responsibility in your area and learn what you can do as a first in company, and what you can do to help them when they arrive.

All responding firefighters need practical confined space training. They need something more than PowerPoint programs with certifications and tabletop scenarios. You may have to look outside your department if you want to get the kind of training that is going to keep your crew intact and save lives. There are several private, highly regarded training companies, many owned or operated by firefighters, that provide training in these topics.

Industrial Rescue Teams are another great resource for training. These teams do the work every day in mills, refineries and manufacturing, and they often are unencumbered by politics, certifications and lowest-common-denominator training. Facilities can pay to have industrial rescue teams train their employees. Find out if your local steel mill or industrial complex has training scheduled. It may be a free pass to drill your crew in a state of the art training simulator, with seasoned instructors. It all starts with establishing a relationship with the safety coordinators at your local industries.

If local industry is using “Call  9-1-1” as their rescue plan, you have to be honest with them about your response, setup time and capability, even if that comes down to “No, we don’t do your confined space rescue.” This may not be what the facility safety director wants to hear, but at least you have informed them of the situation.

Make use of the best training resources you can, and remember that the acumen and muscle memory that comes from repeatedly building rescue plans, haul systems and performing LOTO is hard earned. You can’t learn it in a classroom. If you have the opportunity to train with an industrial rescue team, take it. At the very minimum, train your crews in confined space awareness, basic atmospheric monitoring and non-entry rescue. The life you save may be your own.

Adam O’Connor is a Captain and a 17-year veteran of the Fort Wayne Fire Department. He is also a hazmat and rescue technician, is licensed as a registered nurse and is a regional manager for Niles Safety Services. Jeff Tomb is a firefighter with South Haven Fire Department. Jeff is also the founder of Niles Safety Services, a safety company providing safety and training services to municipal, commercial and industrial clients.

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