Merrill Fire Department trains for confined spaces rescue
While infrequent, when they occur, the risk is high for everyone involved
TINA L. SCOTT
Three days of intensive training focused on performing rescues in confined spaces, culminated in a live simulation of just such a rescue on Wednesday, Apr. 21.
It began Monday, Apr. 19, when Merrill Fire Department members started a three-day confined space rescue training refresher course taught by Conway Shield instructors.
The Merrill Wastewater and Water Utility Departments (WWUD) also participated in the training with the Merrill Fire Department. “As part of our jobs, these departments sometimes have to enter confined spaces that could have certain hazards, so training is essential to keep everyone alive,” said Eric Storm, who works for the Merrill WWUD. He said they frequently work in confined spaces, such as underground sewer lines/tunnels.
“The students were provided classroom instruction on rope rescue and confined space rescue standards, equipment, practices, and procedures,” said Aaron Kreil, Rope Rescue and Confined Space Rescue Instructor for Conway Shield. “They mastered practical skill sets and familiarized themselves with the latest techniques and equipment from around the technical rescue/fire service industry. The final day incorporated scenario-based challenges which put into play the foundational tools and training objectives of the previous two days, engaging their critical thinking skills and incident management responsibilities.”
“Water and Wastewater were there mostly in an advisory capacity,” Storm said, “letting the Fire Department know of a typical scenario of a rescue situation involving the Water/Wastewater Departments.”
Nonetheless, the WWUD employees also learned some new things. Storm said attendees learned:
• How to tie various life-saving knots that are used in ascending and descending.
• How to properly fill out confined space entry permits, ensuring that proper precautions and safety checks have been made.
• Ascending and descending training exercises that were performed at the Fire Station with Belay devices and equipment.
And Storm said he learned, “A different way to lift out a rescued person called a 4-in-1 pulley, as opposed to the winch system that the Water Utility has.”
Storm said the training is beneficial for everyone involved. “The more resources and knowledge you have, the better to deal with emergency situations and the difficulties encountered during a rescue,” he said.
What is a confined space and where might a confined space rescue be needed?
Admittedly, a confined space rescue in a sewer line might be a very unusual occurrence. But there are other kinds of situations that, although thankfully rare, could also occur, for which this kind of training would be crucial.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines a confined space as a space that is not designed for people, although people may need to enter them to perform certain jobs or tasks, but they are not designed for continuous occupancy; and a space that has limited or restricted means for entry or exit. “Confined spaces include, but are not limited to, tanks, vessels, silos, storage bins, hoppers, vaults, pits, manholes, tunnels, equipment housings, ductwork, pipelines, etc.,” OSHA listed on their website. That means any number of businesses, including some in Merrill, as well as area farms, all have some exposure for this type of emergency, and that emergency wouldn’t necessarily have to be related to the actual job being performed. An individual worker in a confined space could have a stroke or heart attack, become light headed and pass out, have a panic attack, or develop any number of medical conditions that don’t directly involve the job itself. Then there are other conditions that could develop within the confined space that could cause an emergency situation, such as a build up of fumes or gases, a slip-and-fall incident, or some other unknown condition.
According to their website, “OSHA uses the term ‘permit-required confined space’ (permit space) to describe a confined space that has one or more of the following characteristics: contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere; contains material that has the potential to engulf an entrant; has walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and taper into a smaller area which could trap or asphyxiate an entrant; or contains any other recognized safety or health hazard, such as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires, or heat stress.”
“With confined space and technical rope rescue being high risk and low frequency,” said Paul Peterson, Firefighter/Paramedic, “It was a great opportunity for the Fire Department to learn new skills and refresh on others with the experiences and training from an outside agency.”
Hands-on rescue training
Wednesday’s live simulation was one of the ultimate training experiences, allowing the Fire Department to work as a team alongside instructors and hand-in-hand with the WWUD employees as if they were performing a real rescue. The premise was that a worker down in the sewer line had collapsed and was non-responsive, and the Fire Department needed to rescue the worker. In this case, the worker was represented by a life sized dummy used for fire training purposes. Once this “worker” or “patient” was rescued, the premise was that this worker/patient regained consciousness and advised emergency personnel that another of his co-workers was still down there somewhere, also unresponsive. This patient was represented by a live trainer who pretended to be unconscious and required rescuers to bring him up, limp and without providing them any assistance, as if they would have had he actually been found unconscious in the sewer tunnel. So the Fire Department, working with the other WWUD workers, had to assess the situation, enter the sewer lines, first locate, and then remove each of the workers/patients, all while staying safe themselves.
Peterson was one of the Firefighters/Paramedics called upon to go into the confined space. Firefighter/Paramedic Daylan Enkers, was the other.
“Entering the sewer line was a very different and educational experience,” Enkers said. “It’s one of those experiences a limited number of people get to experience. I was lowered approximately eight feet into the underground sewer line. When I got to the bottom, I was met with three different sewer lines, each going in a different direction. It was a quiet environment, and it was also dark in all directions, so flashlights became very helpful when it came time to search for our simulated patient.”
“Two of the three sewer lines were smaller in diameter, so I decided to go into the bigger diameter sewer line, as it was more easily accessible, and we did not know where the patients were located, only that they entered this opening on Johnson Street,” he said. “I could almost stand in the line I was traveling through, and approximately 50 feet down the line from my original location, I found the simulated patient and moved the patient to the bottom of the opening where I was lowered.”
“My partner was getting lowered into the confined space at this time,” Enkers said, “and we both worked together on packaging the patient onto a Drag-N-Lift Harness, which can be used to secure and lift a patient vertically out of a confined space.”
“The patient was extricated from the confined space, and I was then lifted out, and my partner was advised that there was another patient, so he stayed in the sewer line and performed another search,” he said.
“When I was in the sewer line and saw the three different openings,” Enkers said, “I was thinking about where the patient could have last been. Are there any signs present that would guide me to the patient? What resources do I need now that I am down here, and what resources will I need when I find the patient? When I got into the confined space, I wasn’t expecting the multiple different routes in the sewer line, but I did expect it to be dark, quiet, and confined in some places.”
“An important takeaway from this training,” Peterson said, “is that this is a team effort that can’t be done by just one person and requires multiple highly-trained personnel working together.”
He also emphasized all the factors that tie such a rescue together. “[Another] takeaway from the training is the importance of safety. Everything from proficiency in tying knots, to operating equipment, and setting up various tow haul systems using pulleys in making mechanical advantages.”
“I learned from the training that there is newer and safer equipment available to us that are more user friendly,” Peterson added.
“Confined spaces are more than just underground sewer lines or other narrow, small openings,” Enkers said. “They also include swimming pools or silos, for an example, both having limited entries and exits. I learned about the different gases and different ways to monitor these gases in confined spaces. Some confined spaces contain hazardous materials that could cause not only just a hazardous atmosphere for us, but could also cause engulfment if not properly managed, so it is important we are confident with our personal protective equipment (PPE) and different ventilation techniques.”
Enkers said the training was really valuable. “I learned many different rescue techniques, including patient packaging and patient extrication out of confined spaces using ropes, pulleys, and other technical rescue equipment,” he said.
A valuable investment, funded by a grant from the State
“The Merrill Fire Department made a great investment into their members’ knowledge, skills, and abilities when it comes to being ever prepared to mitigate any and all types of emergency responses within their community and surrounding areas of coverage,” Kreil said. This training, he said, was a great effort on behalf of fire service professionals that “took meaningful steps to ensure the citizens, as well as themselves, are safe.”
“I believe the public should know that having training like this and training on confined space rescue and entry is important,” Enkers said, “as this is a high risk/low frequency type incident.”
“They need to know that workers in our community work in many different confined spaces frequently throughout the year, and that we are called first if confined space rescue is needed,” he said. “I took this training because, as members of the City of Merrill Fire Department, we are held to a high standard, and the community counts on us to be proficient at all services that we provide when needed. This is a training that is not offered frequently, so taking advantage of this training makes me more confident that I will be able to safely set up and safely perform this rescue if needed in our community.”
Merrill Fire Department Fire Chief Josh Klug said, “We were approved for the Hazard Mitigation Emergency Preparedness (hazmat training) grant for $8,400.00. The grant was submitted by September Murphy, Lincoln County Emergency Management Director, on our behalf to the State,” he said. Historically, the State of Wisconsin has offered this grant annually. “We hopefully get the grant every year,” he said, “but we alternate between haz mat refresher training and confined space training.”
In addition to the items already outlined, the training agenda also included an in-depth focus on packaging the patient for safely extricating the patient from the confined space, metering and ventilation, communication systems, lock out tag out systems, how to identify target locations when responding, how to identify hazards and pre-planning spaces at the target location, set up of the systems needed, rappels, horizontal entry and vertical entry, and much more. Hopefully, the Merrill Fire Department will never need to use the training they completed, but should the need arise, they are now trained and better equipped to work together to respond to the call.