Confined Space Rescue Operations

Fred Endrikat discusses the importance of being informed, properly trained and equipped when conducting a confined space rescue.


It is around the year 110 A.D.; the Roman Emperor Trajan sentences three criminals to clean sewers, an occupation considered to be one of the worst. How Many Of These Confined Spaces Are In YOUR Jurisdiction? Auto repair lift pits Below-grade basements...


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It is around the year 110 A.D.; the Roman Emperor Trajan sentences three criminals to clean sewers, an occupation considered to be one of the worst.

How Many Of These Confined Spaces Are In YOUR Jurisdiction?

Auto repair lift pits
Below-grade basements
Caves and mines
Cofferdams
Cold storage facilities
Collapsed structures
Cupolas
Degreasers
Furnaces
Hoppers
Industrial boilers
Industrial chimneys
Industrial furnaces
Industrial smoke stacks
Industrial spaces
Large industrial transformers
Manholes
Open pits over four feet deep
Ovens
Pipelines
Pits
Process vessels
Pumping stations
Reaction vessels
Sanitary sewer pumping stations
Septic tanks
Sewage digesters
Sewer systems (storm and sanitary)
Ships’ holds
Silos
Storage bins
Storage tanks
Storm drains
Sump pits
Sump rooms
Tank cars and trailers
Trenches and excavations
Tunnels
Utility vaults
Vats
Water treatment plants (sludge diffusers, pits and carbon tanks)
Wells and cisterns

From Roman times, fast forward 18 centuries. In an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer describing the duties of firefighters assigned to one of the city’s four heavy rescue companies, the following account is given of a confined space rescue operation during the summer of 1947:

Two workmen had been emptying a tank car of transformer oil — tricky stuff that can give off dangerous fumes. A few inches remained, and one of the pair dropped inside to clean the car. The railroad siding was only slightly cooler than Death Valley at high noon; inside the car, the heat and fumes were literally unbearable. One workman looked blank and fell on his face in the oil. His companion yelled for help and went to his aid. In proof of a point Captain Joseph F. Meskill of Rescue 1 was trying to make —- that rescue is for professionals — the man passed out beside his mate. Somebody ran for firemen from a fireboat moored nearby. The first fireman went in without a gas mask. Now there were three in the oil, which was deep enough to drown a fallen man. A second fireman donned a mask but it was the wrong kind or got knocked askew. He added himself to the stack.

Rescue 1 got there with the proper masks but, as usual, there were complications. The breathing bag and canister on the chest made a man too bulky to go through the hatch. Time was everything; four men were in imminent peril of drowning or suffocating. One rescuer made a lasso. Another used a ceiling hook to fish for victims; as he raised one of their arms or legs, his mate dropped the loop over it. Head first or feet first, the four were hauled out. Put under resuscitators and drained of oil, all four came around fairly quickly.

For the years 1971 through 1981, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimated that 174 fatalities per year occurred in confined spaces.

How do these three pieces of information, which span nearly 2,000 years, apply to us in the fire service today? The reality of the issue is that the dangers of work in confined spaces have been known (and documented) for centuries, yet many of us do not recognize the life-threatening hazards that exist within them. Nearly 50 years after that article in the Philadelphia Inquirer appeared, citizens across the country still rely on fire departments to respond to and successfully resolve confined space emergency incidents.

As emergency service providers, fire departments are called to respond when things go wrong in a confined space. When added to the fact that approximately 60 percent of deaths in confined space rescue incidents are those of rescuers, we have great reason to be concerned. It is because of the high fatality rate of the untrained and unprepared rescuer that each fire department must develop standard operating procedures for confined space incidents.

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