Unorthodoxed Confined Space Rescue Challenges N.J. Responders

Firehouse contributor Michael Daley provides an in-depth view of a very complex and challenging incident. He detrails the formulation of a rescue plan, to the initial challenges facing the crews and wraps up with the victim's removal.


Upon arrival of the USAR and UASI rescue teams, a briefing was held at the command post where blueprints for the pipe layout were reviewed. Layouts of the pipe system and victim location were identified and representatives from the rescue teams met with the Operations Officer at the top of the pipe to aid in the rescue. As the pipe sections were removed, operations were underway to improve conditions within the space for the victim; voice contact with the victim was continuing, warm ventilation was being put in place to keep fresh air in the space and increase the temperature within the pipe, and atmospheric monitoring was ongoing to make certain conditions did not change during the operation.

The last elbow of pipe was proving to be a formidable opponent; years of exposure to the elements and to moisture had seized the sections of pipe together at the expansion joint. A decision was made to put a relief cut in the pipe at the joint to relieve the pressure on the pipe. A gas-powered rotary saw was brought up to the pipe and cutting operations began. During the cut, a considerable increase in carbon monoxide (CO) was identified in the space, so the gas powered tools were replaced with an electric reciprocal saw to finish the cut. Once the cut was made, the pipe sections were separated, exposing a 20-inch entry portal to access the victim.

Entry Mode

As the last section of pipe was being removed, crews at the top of the space were transitioning into entry mode. Entrants stood by in harnesses and supplied air respirators (SAR) waiting to be lowered while crew continued to build rigging on top of a tripod that was set up at the equipment staging area. Once the pipe was exposed, almost two feet of pipe extended above the soil line (see Photo 3), limiting the lift capabilities of the rigging system while attached to the tripod. Instead, crews attached the rescue rigging to the tower ladder that was extended over the retention basin to serve as an overhead anchor for the rope systems.

While the rigging was being set into place, rescuers continued to communicate with the victim, providing direction to allow the victim to get himself into position for removal from the pipe. Once the victim was in position, towels and blankets were lowered to the victim to allow him to clean himself up and help keep him warm while in the pipe. A harness was lowered to the victim on the retrieval system, and rescuers were able to direct him in donning the harness on his own. Once the harness was in place, the rope was attached to the haul system and the victim was removed from the pipe.

Victim Removed

EMS personnel were directed up to the entry point of the pipe in order to receive the victim once he was removed from the space. At 10:59, the victim was removed from the space, placed on a backboard and transferred onto a stretcher once he was carried down the basin wall.

The Middlesex County Hazardous Materials Team was on scene as well to provide decontamination efforts while paramedics and the on-scene trauma physician began to evaluate the victim’s condition.

By 11:20, the victim was transported to the landing zone, loaded onto a waiting medi-vac helicopter, and flown to the nearest trauma center for treatment. At 11:42, command was terminated and all resources were cleared from the scene.

Lessons Learned

Considering the complexity and the dynamics of the incident, a few points were raised for consideration and remediation:

Have a resource list developed prior to the incident: Responding officers begin their size-up from the initial dispatch, during the response, and while on-scene. The size-up process identifies needs and resources that will be utilized during the incident. These resources are not limited to rescue personnel; other resources included blueprints for the pipe layout of the facility, as well as equipment operators. Once identified, rapid notification and dispatch of these units are imperative for the highest probably of success. Departments should have a list of resources available to limit the reflex time necessary to get them to the incident.

Access to the space may not be initially accessible: Responders were unable to access entry into the pipe the same way the victim did, and remove the victim once they were packaged. However, this situation is not rare; many times, additional steps are necessary to gain access into the space to perform the rescue. It is imperative that rescuers be trained not only in the steps of the entry and removal, but also possesses the skills necessary to move large objects (see Photo 4), remove significant components and “solve problems” that would hinder an entry to perform rescue.