So, what plans do you have for confined space rescue? OSHA has given employers the option of training and equipping their own in-house teams or use an outside rescue service such as the local fire department or private provider. Because the cost in time and resources to provide an in-house team is high, many employers have opted to rely on the fire department.

Based on my experience as a consultant working with employers across the country, most employers who have chosen this option have not given enough consideration to the fire department’s ability to meet their rescue needs. There are several things the employer must consider when evaluating the ability of their chosen rescue service provider.

We often make the assumption that confined space rescue is something that falls into the wheelhouse of every fire service; therefore, we need only dial 911 and they will come running. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Is the fire department trained and equipped?
First and foremost, the employer needs to have a face-to-face with a representative from the fire department to determine if the department provides confined space rescue. We often make the assumption that confined space rescue is something that falls into the wheelhouse of every fire service; therefore, we need only dial 911 and they will come running. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many municipalities do not provide this service for the same reason the employer has chosen not to pursue in-house teams-the cost is simply too great. And of the cities and towns that do provide confined space rescue, few, if any, will equip every station.

A good example is the City of Raleigh, North Carolina. Raleigh has as good a fire department as any city in the country. To train, equip and maintain the training for team members at each of the city’s 27 stations would not only be cost prohibitive but, under certain circumstances, could put entrants at risk. Instead, the City of Raleigh has confined space rescue professionals housed at two stations-one on the east side of town and one on the west.

Recently, I audited the confined space program for a large chemical company in Raleigh which was just around the corner from one of the City’s fire stations. When asked, during the audit, about the company’s rescue procedures; the safety manager responded their plan was to call 911 because of the close proximity of the station. She stated the fire department could be at the front gate in 2 minutes. Yet, the employer had not contacted the city to assure the nearby station was capable of providing the service. The employer simply made the assumption they would. As a part of my audit, I spoke with officers at the nearby station, and was informed that that particular station did not provide confined space rescue and the response time for the nearest rescue team to get on-scene at the plant would be 15-20 minutes depending on prevailing conditions such as traffic flow.

In addition, there are several other things to consider.

  • Are there draw bridges between the plant and the responding station?
  • Are there railroad tracks that, during a train crossing, would require the responders to take an alternate and longer route adding time to their response?
  • Are personnel at the station available at the time of need or are they out answering another call?

In most instances, when rescue is needed, time is of the essence. OSHA has left it to employers to determine if their chosen rescue team or off-site service is capable of meeting the demands required to save lives of their entrants. In making that determination, the employer must add up the time before rescue can begin.

Reaction Time. It could be seconds or minutes before the attendant realizes the entrant is in trouble and rescue is needed.

Contact Time. Does the attendant contact the entry supervisor? Plant security? 911 directly? Either way, more valuable time is consumed, especially if the guard on duty at the time has stepped away to the rest room or is otherwise detracted. We are all familiar with Murphy’s Law.

Response Time. How long will it take for the rescuers to get on-scene? Again, this may take a couple or several minutes. And if they do arrive at the front gate three minutes after the call goes out, they still are not on scene. How long will it take them to get to the confined space? At some sites this can be a very long time.

Assessment Time. Once the rescue service is on scene, time will be needed to assess the situation and determine the best and safest course of action.

Preparation Time. After this assessment has been made, equipment must be removed from the truck and set up. In many situations the equipment of choice may not work. There are many confined spaces, for example, where the use of a tripod is impossible due to the location or configuration of the opening into the space. That means additional time to set up an alternate rescue method.

Finally, the rescuer is lowered into the space to remove the entrant.

Develop a working relationship with the fire department.
Even under the best of circumstances and with the rescue team close by, the time required to remove the entrant, from first awareness to extraction, may not be survivable.

Employers who send workers into permit-required confined spaces and who will rely on 911 must develop a close working relationship with the department. The employer should contact the fire department immediately prior to entry operations to assure availability of the rescue team. And if, during entry, the rescue team should get dispatched to a call or for other reasons become unavailable, the fire department should contact the employer to notify them that rescue is now unavailable and entry operations must cease immediately.

Invite local fire officials to come into your facility to evaluate the spaces your employees might enter and pre-plan their response. This can save a great deal of time if their services are ever needed.

Finally, try to think of every possible scenario which might slow the rescue process and then develop a procedure which will address each situation. Employees’ lives depend on a thorough and well thought-out rescue plan. Plan for the worse.