Confined space rescue: big tips for handling small spaces

Published:  18 August, 2014

Jacob McAfee, Assistant Chief at the USAF Plant 42 Fire Department in Palmdale, California, USA, higlights the challenges confined space rescue responders face and how to tackle them.

Fire departments both paid and volunteer typically provide a wide range of technical rescue services. Technical rescues typically include confined space rescue, high angle rescue, low angle rescue, swift water rescue, urban search and rescue operations, and trench rescues. These types of rescues are high-risk, low-frequency incidents. It’s what makes technical rescues so challenging. Although they are high-risk, the low frequency occurrence can mistakenly lull the rescuer into a sense of complacency by neglecting his training and this will limit the amount of experience you have working real world incidents.

In this article I will discuss one position within the confined space incident command structure that often gets overlooked but may be the difference between success and failure during confined space operations. Based on my past training and experience I will also provide some basic tips to assist the attendant in making your next entry run smoother and ultimately improve the safety of personnel. Confined space rescue can be one of the most demanding types of rescue the fire service provides. A confined space is defined as an area that:

  • Is large enough for an employee to bodily entry and perform work
  • Has limited or restricted means of entry or exit
  • Is not designated for continuous human occupancy

Confined spaces are separated into permit required and non-permit required confined spaces. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 29 code of federal regulation (CFR) 1910.146 confined space; requires one or more of the following characteristics to be classified as a permit required:

  1. Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere
  2. Contain a material that has the potential for engulfment
  3. Has an internal configuration that an entrant could be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor which slopes down and tapers to smaller cross sections
  4. Contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazard

Non-permit required confined spaces do not contain or have the potential to contain atmospheric hazards capable of causing death or serious injury. During confined space operations firefighters are put to the test physically and mentally. It takes a certain type of individual to mentally and physically cope with the conditions of conducting an entry rescue. To be successful rescuers need a good support team that will assist them through the rescue. Typical incident command assignments at a confined space rescue include:

  • Incident commander
  • Safety Officer
  • Rigging
  • Rescue group/Rescue team manager
  • Medical group
  • Air supply manager
  • Attendant
  • Entry/back up teams

While every position plays a part in the outcome of the incident the attendant may be the most crucial position to the success of the rescue and safety of your personnel. At the tactical level the attendant has possibly more individual tasks than any other position on scene. The attended needs to be someone trained at the confined space technician level and have a good command presence and communications skills. They need know how to avoid task saturation and maintain good situational awareness. The attendant needs to be aware of the rescuer’s attitude and tone while in the space. It will be the attendants’ job to ensure rescuers that get feelings of claustrophobia or exhibit other signs of emotional distress are talked down.

The attendant serves as the communication line between the patient and rescuers in an unforgiving environment, and it is that communication that can have a dramatic effect on the rescuers mindset during the rescue. All personnel involved in a confined space entry will at some point experience some uneasiness or some signs and symptoms of claustrophobia. The most important factor to controlling those involuntary reactions is recognition. It can be hard as a rescuer in the space to recognize these signs and control them. The attendant should recognise that change in emotion and speech to provide that voice from the outside to help control those emotions.

While the main responsibility is to the people in the space, the attendant also gives haul commands to the rigging team, communicates with the air supply team, and maintains atmospheric monitoring. They will keep accountability for the entrants in the space, document current and past travel routes and more. This position is too often filled by anyone on scene that has had confined space training. Ensure that this person has the experience, training, and the knowledge to perform the required tasks just as you would any other position. Primary duties of the attendant include:

  • Know the hazards of the space and rescue plan before entry
  • Be aware of possible behavioral effects of exposures. Remain outside the space during the rescue operations until it is completed or when relieved by another qualified attendant
  • Monitor the atmosphere
  • Maintain primary communications with the entrants.
  • Alert entrants in any case where evacuation is needed
  • Maintain a clear working zone around the entry point
  • Perform non-entry rescue
  • Not allow unauthorized personnel to enter the space
  • Do not perform any duty that will interrupt your primary duties of monitoring, ensuring communication and safety of the rescuers and victims
  • Make initial patient contact with the victim
  • Operate hardwire communications
  • Wear appropriate PPE and position vest
  • Reports to the entry team manager or rescue group supervisor

The attendant is generally the first one to the entry point so I recommend that they have these main components:

  • Atmospheric monitor (typically a 4 gas) that reads CO, O2, toxicity, and flammability
  • Appropriate PPE to include self-contained breathing apparatus (initially)
  • Hardwire communications and talk box (if used) and search cam probe.
  • Equipment for a travel restraint/fall protection (if a vertical entry), and attendant position checklist.

Once the attendant has established patient contact and monitored the atmosphere they will log their initial readings and send them to the rescue group supervisor. Remember that OSHA requires the atmosphere to be monitored before entry. For vertical entries OSHA requires testing of the atmosphere every four  feet in depth at a duration of 90 seconds to allow the sample to travel up the collection tube. Monitoring must continue throughout the incident and result be given to the entry group supervisor every 15 min. depending on conditions. The attendant will at all times be positioned at the entry point and monitor the rescuers progress and maintain constant communications.

No one should talk to the rescuers besides the attendant. It is vital that the attendant maintain accountability of each rescuer in the hole. The attendant should document when the entry was made, and what time the rescuers went on air. The attendant will manage the entry teams work/air duration, their mental stability, their route, their airlines, and requests for equipment or other support. Note: For extended entry operations that have complex internal arrangements such as tunnel systems it may be necessary to send more personnel in the space as line tenders. These personnel should be positioned in bends or turns within the space to ensure that supplied airlines move freely and not restrict the rescuers movement.

Some tips to make operations run smoothly and reduce task saturation of the attend include:

  • Combining your hardwire communications lines with your supplied airlines can lessen the amount of lines to manage.
  • Color code you supplied airlines. It is easier to track colored lines than remember who is rescuer #2, entrant #4 and so on. Once someone enters the space and needs slack on a line or has an issue they can be identified by color. Example: Rescue #1 is red. While in the space, rescuer #1 has an air emergency, they transfer over to their escape pack and need to get out of the hole immediately. The rescuer relays back take up slack on red, attendant relays information to the line tenders outside to take up slack on red.
  • Make sure to map the rescuers travel routes. The rescuers should be relaying information back about their travel routes as well as marking them inside. This can be critical to cut down time inside the space with complex arrangements. As the operation goes on and multiple rescuers go in and out of the space, not keeping track of the route can cause duplication of efforts and frustration.
  • Don’t overlook good line management for your rescuers. If you do not take up and let out slack as needed for the rescuer you may end up creating an entanglement hazard inside the space for your rescuers. It doesn’t take long to create a mess.
  • Maintain radio discipline and composure. Numerous people will be trying to talk to the attendant, ensure you always put the entrants first. Never miss a message from the entrant, their life could depend on it.

Each year there are more rescuers killed attempting to remove victims from confined spaces than the victims themselves. Train, train, train, confined space rescue operations already put firefighters in high-risk environments, finding every way to increase our proficiency and awareness of the environment is the top priority of every officer. With all the focus on the entrants and the complicated rope systems don’t forget about the details.

  • Operation Florian

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