Tech Rescue: Pre-Planning a Confined-Space Rescue

Business owners who have confined spaces on their work sites generally have three choices when considering standby rescuers: in-house teams, third-party hires or local emergency response teams. All of these teams have their pluses and minuses when employers try to establish the best way to protect employees entering confined spaces.The in-house team is not a popular option. While the expense of outfitting a team is minimal to a company, the funding is seen as money spent without return and the employees’ time spent training and refreshing is considered “idling” by an employer concerned with profits. These teams are usually used by large companies that make frequent confined-space entries.


Companies that make rare (annual or semi-annual) confined-space entries usually use third-party, standby rescue teams. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation governing permit-required confined spaces, 29 CFR 1910.146, requires an employer to ensure that any confined-space rescue team is fully trained and equipped to adequately handle a rescue.

Local emergency response teams would be, for most employers, by far the best option. The teams are on call 24/7 and are free, although a smart team that covers four or five companies will call them together every few years to help fund replacement gear. Even with that, an employer is looking at a very minimal cost. Woe to the employer, however, that blindly relies on a local emergency response agency without doing its homework. The resulting fines and legal costs can break the company.

Pre-planning performance

How does a responsible employer ensure that an outside rescue team is going to be able to perform well when the time comes? The answer is pre-planning. The OSHA confined-space regulation requires an employer to provide a rescue team access to all confined spaces on the site so that they can “develop appropriate rescue plans and practice rescue operations.” A wise employer will invite the local rescue squad out to his/her work site to practice at least once every six months. The wise rescue squad leader will jump all over that invitation.

The first reason to jump is public relations. We are public servants and must maintain good relations with the human beings that make up that public. When a rescue team shows up at the work site and spends a few hours there doing hazardous training, the owner and the employees know that the people in that big, red truck care about them. The second reason is public education. When the New Orleans, LA, Fire Department Rescue Squad goes on a pre-plan, it is usually a two-day affair. The first day involves a reconnaissance of the site, inspection of the confined spaces and observation of the tasks being performed. We usually do the following at a minimum:

• Meet with the company’s safety and managerial personnel and conduct a 15-minute PowerPoint class on our capabilities

• Review information we need to know

• Provide them with a written copy of the signs and symptoms of shock and a cardiac event

• Ask them what hazardous materials we can expect to find on the site and where

• Teach them how to explain to our dispatchers just exactly what they mean by “trapped.”

• Arrange a pickup point where we can meet an employee who has had our class, knows why we are there and can lead us to the victim as quickly and with as much information about the situation as possible

• Discuss any special site-specific issues we discovered on our recon and any issues company personnel may have

In short, we get a huge jump on a future event. If we have time, we will do our first training session in front of an audience. If not, we come back a second day.


Train realistically

That brings us to the third reason for snapping up any opportunity to pre-plan a potential confined-space (or any) rescue site: in-house training versus training at actual potential rescue sites. The chance to train on a structure that is not “made for TV,” where every projection is an engineered anchor point, and rust has been abolished, is far too good to pass up. Crawling into a hot, rusty work barge for the first time to conduct a rescue set up by the worksite manager is far better training than working our high-angle prop for the third time this month.

Let me add a quick word about scenarios. Go in blind. If you develop your own scenario, let someone else run the team and you stay out of the training. You want to train as realistically as possible. When you show up for an event, you will not have the luxury of picking your hole and the number and condition of victims. I have found the best bet is to get with the lead safety person, set training goals and parameters and let him or her develop the scenario. You, of course, would still be responsible for your own crew’s safety and operations.

Pre-planning a rescue operation is a great opportunity to educate the public on who you are and what you are capable of doing, and interface with the citizens you are there to protect while getting some great training for your own members. n