Confined Space Rescue Operations

Fred Endrikat continues his series on confined space rescues and knowing about your environment.


The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires a written permit entry program to be established for confined space operations. What effect does this have on fire departments? Photo by Bob Stella Operating 250 feet under Boston Harbor during a tunnel...


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The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires a written permit entry program to be established for confined space operations. What effect does this have on fire departments?

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Photo by Bob Stella
Operating 250 feet under Boston Harbor during a tunnel rescue drill, firefighters begin walking some 1,000 feet to retrieve a "victim." Using only the lights on their helmets, the firefighters had to walk in sea water up to 10 inches deep that was leaking through cracks overhead as well as through machinery and such debris as bottles, wood and rocks. Confined space rescue operations should not be attempted unless all personnel are fully trained in their assigned tasks.

Some major fire departments interpret this to mean that no entries of a permit-required confined space for rescue operations shall be made until the fire department prepares and signs its own entry permit. In reality, the formal entry permit is used as an operational checklist to ensure firefighter safety.

OSHA specifies that the entry permit must contain the following information:

  • The space to be entered.
  • The purpose of the entry.
  • Date and authorized duration of entry permit.
  • The authorized entrants, by name, which will enable the attendant to determine quickly and accurately, for the duration of the permit, which authorized entrants are inside the permit space.
  • The currently serving attendants, by name.
  • The currently serving entry supervisor, by name, with room for the signature or initials of the entry supervisor who originally authorized entry.
  • Hazards of the permit space.
  • The measures used to isolate the permit space and to eliminate or control permit space hazards before entry.
  • Acceptable entry conditions.
  • The results of initial and periodic tests performed under the permit-required confined space program section.
  • The rescue and emergency services that can be summoned and the means (such as the equipment to use and the number to call) for summoning those services.
  • The communication procedures used by authorized entrants and attendants to maintain contact during the entry.
  • Equipment, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), testing equipment, communications equipment, alarm systems and rescue equipment to be provided for compliance with this section.
  • Any other information whose inclusion is necessary, given the circumstances of the particular confined space, in order to ensure employee safety.
  • Any additional permits, such as for hot work, that have been issued to authorize work in the permit space.

In most parts of the country, the fire department will be the lead agency in a confined space rescue operation, so a comprehensive program that assigns accountability, addresses formalized training and includes a written standard operating procedure should be in place.

Hazards/Hazard Abatement

Each confined space must be carefully evaluated for any hazards by the rescue team as the rescue plan is being developed. Consideration must be given to:

  • Atmospheric hazards.
  • Physical hazards.
  • Any other recognized serious safety or health hazards.

One of the most important aspects of sizing up a confined space operation is to understand the environment within the space. The leading cause of death in confined space incidents is asphyxiation due to oxygen deficiency; this is followed by exposure to toxic atmospheres. Approximately 30 percent of the injuries and 40 percent of the deaths in confined space incidents are caused by atmospheric-related problems.

To prepare for entry or to operate safely in a confined space, we must take into account the atmospheric conditions and protect ourselves accordingly. Until you prove otherwise, assume that all confined spaces have a hazardous atmosphere (this is easily remembered by the acronym FATE Flammable And Toxic Environment):

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