As the incident commander, you need to ask yourself, am I prepared to commit personnel into this hazardous atmosphere and what will be the outcome of this endeavor?This is the second article in a series on confined space emergency response at the company officer level. Even if the company officer and the crew has been through Operations Level training, unless the skills learned in that training are practiced routinely, there will still be an appreciable amount of anxiety in dealing with these complex situations.
There are, however, things that can be done by the first-in companies to keep the problem from getting any worse. In the last article, we discussed the definitions of confined spaces and arrival considerations, including apparatus placement and size-up. In this article, we will be discussing command and control of these incidents.
As in fires or any other emergency, the first arriving officer needs to exercise command options appropriate for the scene. Given that this series of articles is targeted toward non-technician responders, and you are not responding as part of a confined space response team, you should establish scene control and either assume or pass command. Generally, the rule is that unless you can take an immediate action that is going to make a difference in the scene outcome, the first arriving officer should establish a strong, visible, centralized command. Confined space emergencies can get way too complicated to try to manage them "on the move".
Transmit an arrival report describing scene observations to your dispatch and other responding units. Establish command in a safe and visible location. Consider the fact that you may be dealing with hazardous materials or an unstable space and position your apparatus and CP accordingly. Advise Dispatch of command designation, location, and pertinent arrival information. Of course, first arriving officers should implement scene control and accountability and importantly, deny entry to unauthorized persons.
Considering the situation at hand and assuming a proper size-up of the situation (as we did in the previous article), a risk/reward analysis needs to be done based upon the hazards that exist. Are there visible victims and if so equipped, can we use their entry belay to retrieve them? Even if someone can't be seen in the space, are there clues like open manholes, tools lying around the site, or children reported as playing in or around the space? What is the actual nature of the emergency? The information obtained in the size-up will provide clues as to how long the victim has been in the space, atmospheric conditions, and other hazards within the space.
As the incident commander, you need to ask yourself, am I prepared to commit personnel into this hazardous atmosphere and what will be the outcome of this endeavor? I am willing to risk a lot to save a life but I'm not willing to risk much to do a body recovery. Consider the more notorious confined space fatalities in the past decade and ask yourself if you want to be one of those case studies.
Considering what currently allocated resources you have at hand, do you have the ability to manage this incident? If you don't have the resources, call early and get them on scene. What access do you have to the space? Quite a few confined spaces have limited access. Will there be a need for additional riggers, aerial access, cutting, etc.?
Management of the scene requires an effective incident management system, accountability, and staging of non-allocated resources. Even the simplest situation requires staffing for an entrant, an attendant, and a supervisor. If you look at those positions as being the Entry Team, the RIT Team, and the Incident Commander, you can start to see what kind of manpower considerations we have here. Anyone with any training at all in confined space entry knows that while three people may be sufficient for industrial applications while all factors are controlled, in an emergency situation there are way too many factors to control to allow such a small response. Someone must perform air monitoring constantly and someone must provide ventilation, rigging will need to take place, and the list goes on. Thus the need to preplan spaces in your jurisdiction so you can have an appreciation for the numbers required to perform a safe and adequately staffed entry.
Aside from the IC, an Entry Team, a Back-up/RIT Team, and a Safety Officer, you need to have adequate medical personnel on scene to monitor and treat responders. I think we can all agree that as emergency responders, we should have at least a BLS Ambulance on scene, if not an ALS Unit. Examples of other positions that you should consider filling would include an air monitoring & ventilation group, hazard control group (lockout and tag-out, energy control, etc.), rigging group, and medical group (for patient treatment, independent of the rescuer treatment/monitoring unit).
As important as these groups are, there is one other assignment that is extremely important during these types of calls: the Staging Officer. Let me recommend to you the early establishment of a staging area that is within a reasonable distance from the incident, but not so close that the units begin creeping toward the scene. Bring your resources to that staging area and keep them there until you need them. Take it from someone who has been there before, there's no feeling like arriving on scene and turning around to find six companies on location and awaiting assignment. Give yourself a brief moment to digest the information and draw the resources to fill the assignment; don't let them push you into a hasty decision. As a really smart chief once said, "What's worse than one bad plan is TWO bad plans".
As you can see, a confined space incident can begin to take on a life of its own pretty quickly and if not managed aggressively, all kinds of things can go wrong. Confined space incidents are very dangerous and yet often appear innocuous. As the first arriving officer to a confined space emergency you must establish an early framework for the team to follow to provide for accountability and to divide the work into manageable segments.
In our next article, we will discuss the formation of incident action plans for confined space incidents.