A light at the end of the tunnel

Published:  01 April, 2007

Confined space rescue operations are not for the faint hearted. Even the most seasoned and toughened firefighters will sometimes be affected by claustrophobia. This is not, however, the most prominent danger here, say America’s top rescue professionals, James Hyles and Larry Collins.

Confined space rescue operations are not for the faint hearted. Even the most seasoned and toughened firefighters will sometimes be affected by claustrophobia. This is not, however, the most prominent danger here, say America’s top rescue professionals, James Hyles and Larry Collins.
James oversees the renowned Rescue Program at the Texas A&M University System’s Texas Engineering Extension Service, one of the top emergency response training facilities in the world. Larry Collins is a captain of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, a department regarded as one of the most experienced and advanced brigades in the world.
James began by explaining the requirements for a confined space rescue technician. “A good confined space rescuer should have received the appropriate level of training and is always of a calm and collected disposition. Although not everyone might have the state of mind to enter confined spaces, this does not mean he or she cannot be a member of the team. There are a variety of other vital jobs which can be done at the rescue scene outside the actual confined space, such as the handling of ropes, logistics setting up re-hab, or any other operational support within the rescue scene.”
He sees inadequate training as the biggest threat to the life of the rescuer and the patient involved in the operations.
“People who haven’t received enough training or who are inexperienced often rely on their senses too much. They think they can anticipate hazards without using the adequate equipment. This leads them into situations where there is either a buildup of toxic gases or an oxygen depleted atmosphere. When they finally notice the gas or the lack of oxygen...the contact is usually fatal,” explains James.
In Larry Collins’ confined space rescue (LACFD) team all members are certified as confined rescue technicians. This means that any member of the team is actually legally allowed to enter the space. This is, however, not common practice everywhere.
Asphyxiation in confined space rescue situations is the leading cause of death amongst rescue professionals in the US. The chances are great, that, even after the initial atmosphere tests, the atmosphere in the space will deteriorate. James strongly advises his fellow professionals to keep a close eye on atmospheric monitoring equipment at all times and perform tests during all stages of the operation.
“The testing of the atmosphere should always happen with deliberation and care, using the proper equipment and by well-trained personnel. Rescuers should always take into account the fact that different gases and toxins behave in different ways. Hydrogen-sulphide, for instance, is heavier than air and sinks to the bottom of a space, whilst carbon-monoxide is lighter and is usually detectable near the entrance. “Depending on the depth and size of the space there might be a stratification of the atmosphere. Therefore tests should be executed at different levels,” he warns.
Larry Collins agrees with this. “Clearly, there are different levels of atmosphere with different vapour densities. This poses a tactical issue of how you monitor. This skill has to be taught.
“When entering a vertical shaft, such as a borehole in the ground that could be 80 or 90 feet deep, stratification might occur - and so this will requires tests from top to bottom. It is possible to lower a rope with the monitoring equipment attached and assess the peak readings at every crucial level. Alternatively, there are hoses available with special units (props) which can be lowered into the hole. The props pull the atmosphere into the measuring device at the top of the hose. This allows a realtime look at the atmosphere at the bottom of the shaft. The only problem is that when the shaft is very deep there is a time delay you have to take into account.”
James recommends using a basic four-gas meter before starting the initial rescue. “The levels of oxygen should fall within the range of 19.5% to 23.5% before starting the rescue. This device also indicates the amount of carbon-monoxide and hydrogen- sulphide – these potentially toxic gases are the most commonly occurring in confined spaces.”
Sucking up and out
Larry and his team have developed an alternative approach to dealing with the threats that face a confined space rescuer. “Fifteen years ago we were responding to a trench rescue operation in which the victim was engulfed. It dawned on me that we could probably get more dirt out if we asked for a Hydrovac.”
A Hydrovac unit is commonly used to clean, gulleys and sewers. It sucks the material out, like a big, industrial vacuum cleaner.
“I asked for one of those machines and we got much more dirt out than before. It cut the rescue time in half,” continues Larry. “Now, whenever we have a trench rescue operation here at LACFD, we automatically call in three Hydrovacs. We are now also using Hydrovacs for confined space rescue operations.
“The first time was about 15 years ago when a US Borax Company – a manufacturer of  boron, a soap product – had two employees buried in a 100 feet silo. In this situation we used the Hydrovacs to great effect. Again, we found we could carry out the rescue in half the time,” he says.
“However, the Hydrovacs inspired us with another idea. If you can remove rubble and other coarse materials with this, why shouldn’t it be possible to remove contaminated air from a confined space? Currently, we are experimenting with these machines by pulling the toxic atmosphere out to help replenish the oxygen supply.”
Larry is absolutely certain that this will work.
The department hasn’t used this on any real emergencies yet, but is currently already working with ventilation fans where one blows air into the confined space while the other blows contaminated atmosphere out.
“This works in especially deep confined spaces, where you may not have the right reach. We are working with a new product called RescueVac, which is an extension to the actual Hydrovac nozzle I discussed previously,” he says.
 “A firefighter from Illinois came up with the Rescuevac development concept and it has proved incredibly efficient in removing dirt and rubble from around the patient in trench rescue situations – we are now planning to use this extension for confined spaces. Personally, I think this is going to be a revolution for many brigades.” [See page 61 for a full report.]

  • Operation Florian

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