What Can Go Wrong in Confined Space Rescues

In any confined space rescue, some common denominators should be established immediately, including air monitoring.

May 8, 2010, Middletown, OH -- A worker conducting a non-entry inspection of a manhole was incapacitated and fell into the hole. Moments later, two firefighters lowered their captain into the hole to conduct the rescue. All three firefighters were overcome and nearly perished in the botched rescue.

May 26, 2010, Liberty Township, IN -- A worker is overcome and collapses in a pit 10 feet deep. A civilian attempted the rescue and was overcome, as well. Two Liberty Township firefighters arrived on the scene, attempted a rescue, and also were overcome. The original victim died.

Sept. 6, 2010, Tarrytown, NY -- A worker was incapacitated in a manhole. Although a firefighter made a rescue attempt, both individuals died from exposures in the confined space.

What is the common denominator here? Failed rescue attempts. The rescuers obviously felt that they were doing the right thing when entering into these confined spaces to perform a rescue. Allowing your emotions to control your response to a situation is dangerous and, many times, deadly. We must use our heads and think through the problem.

Use your skills and talents to find a solution and not become part of the problem. I know it is easier said than done, but not entering a confined space to do a rescue may be the smartest thing to do. After all, if you go down, who will rescue you?

I am a lieutenant firefighter with more than 27 years of service not only in firefighting, but also in technical rescue. I am also a member of SUSAR (State Urban Search and Rescue) team with cross-training in confined space, trench, high angle, structural collapse, and swift water rescue.

Firefighters typically do not receive technical rescue training during their careers; it is an extra commitment to receive the training. Technical rescue training takes time above and beyond the normal training requirements. It is typically 40 hours for the technician level, and many firefighters see that extra time commitment as a burden and decide not to pursue it. Unfortunately, the public perception of firefighters is this: "You can help them, right?" But this may or may not be the case, and it can lead to devastating results, as in the incidents above. Firefighters almost always "attempt" to do a rescue, even if it is beyond their level of training.

Sizing Up the Hazards
If a person is in need of rescue from the water, it is a water rescue. If the person is injured inside a vehicle, that is a vehicle rescue. And if someone is injured in a tank, manhole, vessel, pit, or other confined space, you have a confined space rescue -- regardless of atmospheric monitoring. The May 8, 2010, incident came in as a response to a worker who had fallen. Upon arrival, the Officer in Charge should have identified immediately that the worker had fallen inside a manhole, which is always a confined space. In a confined space rescue, some common denominators should be established. Air monitoring, fall protection for rescuers, retrieval methods, traffic, and any other hazard of the space that could be present always should be identified and addressed prior to any entry. We must size up the situation and identify hazards at confined spaces, just as at vehicle accidents, structure fires, or other situations.

Atmospheric hazards usually are invisible. This is not Hollywood; we don't have nice green clouds floating inside the space to show you, "I am toxic, stay away!" Carbon monoxide, a huge problem, is colorless, tasteless, odorless, and undetectable without the use of an air monitor, as we all should know. Oxygen deficiency can occur for many reasons and also is colorless, tasteless, and odorless. The effects of oxygen deficiency are instant and will incapacitate a person immediately.

It should be mandatory for responders that the atmosphere of every confined space is monitored before an entry is made, even if the worker is conscious and talking. The monitoring must be performed prior to entry and during entry for all rescues in order to ensure it is not only safe to enter, but also safe to work in. Most common atmospheric hazards can be attributed to oxygen deficiency, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and flammable atmospheres, such as methane or natural gas. A simple blower can do wonders to provide a fresh air supply into the confined space and "turn the air over," removing or minimizing the hazards. Nevertheless, atmospheric monitoring of all confined spaces should never be dismissed because the conditions can change instantly.

Awareness Training for All
All three rescues above would not have been so tragic had the rescuers simply monitored the atmosphere before allowing a rescuer to enter the space. I realize many departments don't have the resources, abilities, and financial backing to teach a 40-hour confined space technician course, but awareness training is simple. In about two hours, anyone can be taught to identify a confined space and determine the possible hazards of the space. At that point, everyone should be able to identify a hazardous situation and know when to call for help.

The bottom line is that awareness training is simple, cheap, and should be a tool in the firefighter's bag of tricks. Not having awareness training is no excuse today, especially when we are called on to perform all sorts of rescues, and not just fires.

The real question is this: If a tanker truck overturns in your area and is spilling a liquid on the ground, and the driver is out of the truck lying in the middle of the road, would you approach it? I guess your answer will determine the next phase of training needed or, at best, will determine whether you're on the right track to protecting yourself, your crew, and the lives of civilians, just as we were commanded to do.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Scott Goodwin, COSS, is a 27-year Lieutenant Firefighter with the Ballville Township Fire Department in Fremont, Ohio and is a member of SUSAR Region 1 for Northwest Ohio. He is also the director of Confined Space Training Services, which offers confined space entry training, rescue training, and standby rescue services to businesses and the fire service all over the United States, using classroom training and hands-on training with a mobile simulator. For information on confined space training, contact him at 419-241-3601 or [email protected] or visit www.confinedspacetrainingservices.com.

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