Deeply Prepared

Whether responding for a tunnel rescue 100 feet below ground or a high-rise rescue 100 stories above, a fire department needs state-of-the-art tools.

THE operating philosophy and the challenge facing the emergency services component of a major U.S. city is to be prepared for anything and to protect the area's 2 million residents. The city's Bureau of Operations includes the fire department, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, four heavy rescue units, and a special hazardous materials team.

To protect the men and women whose lives are on the line, the fire department, heavy rescue, and hazmat teams use a self-contained, four-hour breathing apparatus (SCBA). The fire chief says the re-breather offers several advantages to the department and expands its operational capabilities. The department is better prepared to handle emergency situations above, below, or at ground level, and response time has shrunk.

Before obtaining the re-breather, the department had to check each breathing mask before putting it into service. The new units eliminate this requirement and can be pre-tested so the department is ready for service, saving critical response time. The fire department equipped is with 26 units. Each 35-pound unit features a positive-pressure breathing circuit to prevent contamination from ambient air, a flow-sensitive CO2 absorber, and a cylinder with 400 liters of enriched O2. The unit automatically adds extra oxygen as the wearer's breathing rate increases and features an electronic device for time, test, and pressure display and alarm system.

The department stores its units at Air Mask Operations headquarters. There, factory-certified technicians maintain and prepare them for duty. They also train emergency services personnel in the unit's features and use. To further maximize uptime, the technicians keep one set of masks for training and a separate set for service.

Ensuring Rescue Capability
Fire, heavy rescue, and hazmat personnel throughout the department are qualified in the unit, but the four heavy rescue units are primarily responsible for using it. The reason: They are primarily responsible for rescue operations in the Deep Tunnel and Reservoir Project that is operated by the metropolitan water department.

The Deep Tunnel is one of the largest and most complex tunneling projects in the world. It consists of 109.2 miles of hard rock tunnels ranging from 9 to 33 feet in diameter and located 150 to 340 feet below ground. It incorporates more than 240 drop shafts ranging from 4 to 25 feet in diameter and some 600 connecting and control structures. The Deep Tunnel and control structures can contain more than 2.4 billion gallons of water.

When a rainstorm exceeds the capacity of the city's combined septic and sewer system, the water is channeled to the underground tunnel and reservoir. Later, the metro water department can pump out and purify the trapped water before releasing it into a ship canal.

Originally, the department's contract with the construction companies called for them to handle rescue operations. However, under an agreement with the MWRD and the city, the construction companies purchased the equipment, and EMS provided the personnel. The agreement also allowed the construction companies to rely on a rescue team experienced in adverse conditions and prepared to respond immediately to any call.

Deep Tunnel is not the only underground tunnel project. The city recently built a 4.5-mile water tunnel 175 feet below ground. The project took two and half years to build and transports water to the city's suburbs. The heavy rescue units are located in the north, south, and central districts, and another unit serves the international airport. The five-person units also respond to suburban requests that come over the mutual alarm system. If there is a call for tunnel rescue, the units follow a standard Deep Tunnel Response Protocol that includes wearing a re-breather mask; the team carries a sixth mask for backup. The heavy rescue units are supported by a hazmat team officer and three dedicated hazmat team specialists who are trained in the re-breather unit. All hook and ladder units also have personnel capable of using the unit, if necessary.

Fully Prepared
Whether rescue personnel are involved with deep tunnels or Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health environments, reliability remains the ultimate measure of performance. The re-breather unit met the department's requirements for reliability, the fire chief says, adding that personnel find it easier to maintain than previous units while providing the extra capacity required.

Whether preparing for a tunnel rescue 100 feet below ground or a high-rise rescue 100 stories above, the department and the rest of the city's Bureau of Operations understand the challenge of change. Using state-of-the-art tools, they are fully capable of dealing with it.

This article appeared in the January 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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