Workers die in confined spaces every year. And every year, firefighters die trying to rescue workers from these manholes, sewers, tanks, silos and pits. Most workers enter confined spaces with the expectation that they will be rescued if something goes wrong. But if a crew’s only rescue plan is to call 9-1-1 in the event of a problem, that rescue may not be possible.

Take, for example, the case of a welder who entered a confined space from a small opening some 20 feet off the ground via a scaffold. As far as the crew was concerned, the requirements for this permit-required confined space had been met: they had an attendant, an entrant and a supervisor; the space was clearly marked as a confined space; the air was being monitored; the welder was wearing a harness; a tag line, tripod and winch were in place; and the crew had completed a confined space permit. The only remaining requirement was the rescue plan. The crew fulfilled this requirement as they were trained to do, and as they'd always done in the past: They wrote down “Call 9-1-1."

Ultimately, it was a rescue plan that proved unable to save a life. When the welder was electrocuted in the confined space and went into cardiac arrest, there was no way to remove him from the pipe chase – the crew couldn’t drag the large welder over the elevated, horizontal pipes. They called  9-1-1, but a rescue couldn’t be performed in a timely manner. As a result, the welder perished.

We are firefighters. We know it is not easy to move a flaccid body. A 100-pound victim is a struggle for two men, especially if you are trying to lower that victim out of second story window. You are not going to pull a limp adult around, over and through entrapments with a rope, even using a winch. Furthermore, most workers die in confined spaces because of a lack of oxygen. You have only 4-6 minutes to provide oxygen to worker’s brain tissue before they start losing function. Hands-only CPR has increased survivability rates, but you have to be able to get to the victim to start compressions.  

People die in confined spaces because there is no true rescue team on the scene, and many times because “Call  9-1-1” is the only rescue plan. More likely than not, if a person is not breathing, we are not going to get to the scene and affect a rescue in time to save the victim without violating OSHA law and putting our own lives at risk.

The Firefighter’s Limitations

Firefighters are America’s most trusted problem solvers. Arm stuck in a vending machine? We’re there. Strange odor in your home? We’ll be right over. So what would ever give the public the idea that we weren’t ready, willing and able to save you from a legitimate emergency like a confined space incident? Not us, at least not publicly. We are the “can-do” guys.

Some larger departments have developed highly skilled and specially equipped technical rescue teams who can handle confined space incidents, but these departments are few and far between. Some departments have conducted assessments and made the conscious decision not to perform confined space rescue operations. Usually this is a result of a study looking at call frequency (demand), equipment costs and training requirements. Other departments have never addressed the issue, perhaps because no solution availed itself beyond just saying “no.” And unfortunately, some departments still are oblivious to the hazards of confined spaces.

The fact is that for every victim who dies in a confined space, three would-be rescuers die trying to save that victim. These sobering statics have been support time and time again as recently as 2010 when firefighters in Tarrytown, N.Y., Liberty Township, Ind., and Middletown, Ohio, were involved in confined space rescue attempts that killed or hospitalized the would-be rescuers. Why? Because it’s not in the nature of the firefighter not to help someone in trouble. The term “viable victim” is a term used frequently in training, but short of obvious mortal injury, most firefighters have a tough time making the call that a victim is no longer viable.

Perhaps equally alarming is the fact that we unknowingly or unintentionally expose ourselves to these situations. Have you ever received a call at the station from a local entity to inform you that they are making a confined space entry? I have. The reason some workers are doing this is so that they can legitimately put a check mark next to the confined space permit section that says “Standby Rescue Team” – it’s usually right next to “Rescue Plan” where they have written “call  9-1-1”. What’s even more concerning is that many don’t bother to call – they simply check the box and write  9-1-1.

One safety director of a large, international design and build contractor had this to say about his planning for multiple confined space entries every month: “We always make self rescue the first option, then we back that up with non-entry rescue, and if we have to we will hire a rescue team to stand by.”

He added, “If a contractor or facility is putting “Call  9-1-1” as their rescue plan, they are only planning for a body recovery.”