Survival and escape planning, RIT back up, and proper action planning, are essential to confined-space operations.
Effective confined-space rescues require adequate event planning. This planning should include not only target hazard analysis and pre-entry hazard mitigation actions, but also entry-team preparedness, escape-procedure training and rapid intervention team readiness. Although many confined-space rescues will be straight-forward, entries into limited-area spaces such as tank cars and utility vaults — more complex spaces that require wide-area searches — can prove extremely taxing to rescue teams.
This article will address considerations for escape-procedure planning, entry-team preparedness, RIT actions, and trapped-rescuer action planning for confined-space events.
Rescues must be planned with the safety of entrants as the priority objective. The action plan for a confined-space entry must include a full understanding of the hazards and the physical layout of the space to be entered. This is important to ensure that the proper level of personal protective gear is used, hazards are controlled or minimized, and entrants have a good understanding of the difficulties that they will face. Standard operating procedures and training need to be implemented to identify and practice escape procedures in the event of a change in the environment, a problem with protective gear or safety equipment, or failure of the breathing apparatus.
SOPs must be backed up with actual training to simulate emergencies and test written procedures. Paper plans often do not work in the real world; it's only through actual application in the real environment that realistic procedures can be instituted.
Escape planning for all entry teams should cover air line failure that would require the entrant to vacate the confined space quickly while using a limited-capacity egress bottle. Air-conservation measures, such as controlled-breathing techniques, must be taught and practiced in order to maximize this limited air supply. Entry teams should develop a procedure to quickly escape if the air supply is lost on the outside of the space due to an equipment problem, such as a regulator malfunction or an O-ring blow-out during a bottle change. Air-supply problems also can occur if an air line is cut inside the space.
A decision needs to be made at the team level whether to abandon the air line connection and hasten the escape, or stay attached to the air line during the escape in hopes that the air supply will be re-established by the outside support team. Staying attached to the air line will allow for re-connection of the lost air supply due to an outside failure. Staying attached to the air line also may help the backup team find the initial entry-team members if they are required to enter to assist with air re-supply during an emergency. Whatever standard escape procedure is developed, it must be practiced.
Escape planning and survival training should cover potential failure of primary light sources and limited- or no-visibility situations. These situations will require the entrants and outside support teams to act together to safely remove lost or incapacitated entry-team members. Entry teams will be required to navigate spaces, manage air lines and communications lines, and operate rope systems with limited or zero lighting if their primary lighting source fails.
Communications equipment failures are another common issue that must be addressed in survival and escape planning and training. Alternative communications sources, communications protocols and predetermined actions to initiate communications must be identified, planned and practiced. Action plans must define when to send in the backup team if communications are lost with the original entry team.
When we consider potential confined-space emergencies, the need for equipment and supplies that will aid the entry team in escape becomes evident. Entry-team members always should consider using redundant lighting sources. Typically a handlight and/or helmet light will be used. Small spaces like storage tanks, manholes or tank cars can be illuminated with area lighting, such as explosion-proof droplights or other work-area lighting. Larger and more complex areas will require the rescuers to take portable lighting with them.
The outside support teams can assist with identifying the escape portal in large spaces by positioning an approved lighting device at the opening. This will act as a beacon in the event of a lighting failure. Individual rescuers should carry more than one personal light, as well as several chemical light sticks, as backup lighting.
Communications equipment failures also should be considered and planned for by using a secondary communications device and/or procedure. A personal distress device or other type of signaling device may be used with an agreed-on and practiced signaling system to initiate evacuation or call for help.
The tapping of a tool using a predetermined code also may be used, or the outside team may use a whistle to initiate an evacuation. If equipment allows, a hardwired communications system backed up by an approved portable radio also may be an option.
Air line failures must be planned for and escape procedures practiced. Breathing apparatus that allow for the use of a buddy-breather hose that can be connected to a team member whose air line has failed is a great advantage in this situation. Protocols and training should be developed to teach entry-team members to conserve air during escape through controlled-breathing techniques or other methods.
Confined-space-rescue planning should always include the implementation of a rapid-intervention team. This team is equipped and positioned to enter the confined space immediately to assist the entry team in the event of an emergency. In this context, an emergency would include an air line failure or other respiratory protective device failure, medical or traumatic incapacitation of a rescuer, or entrapment of a rescuer.
The RIT members must prepare themselves for the task at hand. This will include properly equipping themselves not only for the entry but also to help the rescue team that gets in trouble. Backup-team actions and preparedness should include:
- Gathering known data on the space, including updated information from outside sources and information from the initial-entry team as it becomes available.
- Identifying potential problem areas in the space, including entrapment hazards such as machinery, converging walls, tapered floors and fall hazards within the space.
- Preplanning of extrication methods, tools, and alternate entry and egress points for potential entrapment issues.
- Preparing equipment to initiate air re-supply to the entry team in the event of an air line failure or other breathing apparatus failure. This may include having an available SCBA, supplied-air breathing apparatus, or egress bottle available to take into the entry team.
Training scenarios should be developed and implemented that include the requirement of a RIT to quickly access an initial-entry team to re-supply a rescuer with respiratory protection and/or initiate extrication from entrapment within the confined space.
Trapped Rescue Teams
Complex confined-space events that require a wide-area search, difficult navigation of maze- like structures, and/or multiple entries should include trapped-rescuer response as part of the action planning. This planning must be fluid and continuous throughout the event as the situation changes and new information becomes known.
The action planning should consider the close staging of tools and equipment to support not only the confined-space-entry needs, but also the rescue and extrication potential. This potential may include the need for blocking and cribbing moving machine parts, dismantling equipment, or forcing entry through the outside structure of the confined space. The action plan should address alternative rescue options for each of these events. The tools and equipment that may be needed should be identified and staged at an area that is quickly accessible to the backup teams. In addition, the planning should address staffing needs for multiple entries, as well as continuous RIT readiness.
Confined-space rescues will require responders to implement actions to mitigate hazards and initiate entry operations to quickly access, stabilize and remove victims. Planning for these events always should take into consideration the potential for rescuers to become secondary victims due to rapidly changing conditions, failure of equipment or medical incapacitation.
Survival and escape planning, rapid intervention backup teams, and proper action planning are essential pieces of the puzzle that should be implemented through standard operating procedures and proper training.
Robert Rhea, a 29-year veteran of the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department, served his last 13 years as a battalion chief assigned to the operations division. He served for 16 years with the department's technical-rescue team and urban-search-and-rescue team, where he was instrumental in designing, implementing, and evaluating confined-space, structural-collapse, and trench-safety and -rescue training programs. Rhea served for three years in the training division as the director of fire and rescue training Programs. Rhea is a principal committee member for NFPA 1670, Technical Rescue Operations,and NFPA 1006, Professional Qualifications for Rescue Technicians. He now is co-owner of ARK Technical Rescue Training Services.