Confined space response: It’s all about proper planning
Four steps to help your team develop a sound confined space rescue plan
If you’re questioning whether your organization should be prepared for a confined space event, the answer is YES. Every municipality – rural urban, or suburban – has confined spaces. If your municipality has a civil infrastructure involving any type of utilities, telecomm, manufacturing, etc., then you have confined spaces.
To properly identify these spaces, you can reference NFPA 1006: Standard for Technical Rescue Personnel Qualifications, NFPA 1670: Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents, as well as OSHA 1910. The standards and guidelines provide the necessary backdrop for you attack this challenge head on – and in a compliant manner.
The purpose of this article is not to discuss the types of confined spaces but rather to shed light on the importance of developing a response plan for them. So let’s dig in.
Steps to plan for confined space incidents
Once you have identified the existing confined spaces in your jurisdiction, following a system or algorithm will help assist you in planning for the potential confined space event. Here is a suggested approach:
- Establish a risk profile
- Develop a rescue plan
- Practice the rescue plan
- Evaluate the rescue plan
Let’s go through each of these steps.
1. Establish a risk profile
When you identify the confined space, coordinate with the owner of the space, much like you would do to create a building preplan.
Conduct a physical assessment or walkthrough of the space. Obtain or create a site map and preplan document of the space, identifying characteristics, dimensions, hazards, purpose, classification, entries and control measures.
If there are alarm and suppression systems in the space, determine the alarm design and purpose as well as communications. For example, some spaces with specific atmospheric hazard potentials will have detectors designed to alarm in the presence of said conditions. When the alarm is activated, many industrial complexes receive that alarm before it is directed to 911 so that they can determine the authenticity of the alarm. This avoids false alarms and unnecessary responses, but it can also put first responders way behind the eight ball in an event. It’s best to talk to the space owner regarding these processes to find mutually agreeable solutions. This rings true with any hazards or characteristics of the space that can be altered from a preventative perspective to reduce risk factors.
Once the space itself has been dissected, shift your attention to the entry operations. How often do employees enter the space? What safeguards and measures do they use to isolate hazards? How many employees enter the space? How do the entrants and attendants communicate emergencies? Is there a standby emergency team in place or are the entrants relying upon 911 response for rescue procedures?
As you progress through these operational questions, combine the answers with the information obtained regarding the space itself and you have the ingredients for your risk assessment.
In basic terms, if the space and/or the entry operations present a high level of risk to the entrants and to rescuers, then classify it as a high priority for training and planning. If it is a low-risk conclusion, then bump it down the priority list. This is imperative because you will find that you have far more confined spaces to prepare for than you can imagine. Many of the lower-risk spaces will share some common characteristics and be far more forgiving toward shortfalls in prolonged planning and training than the high-risk spaces. The potential for frequency will also play a large role in prioritizing spaces. Spaces that are high risk and entered frequently present the highest likelihood for an actual event.
2. Develop a rescue plan
With the new risk profile preplan, take a whole new approach or look at the space now. Look at it from the perspective of first rescuing a would-be victim and then of rescuing a rescuer.
Scrutinize everything about the space and the entry operations to plan out hazard assessments, hazard management, entry techniques, resource requirements (including staffing and PPE), anchors and approaches for rigging, alternative means of egress, communications, victim access and packaging, extrication and situation containment. It works well to walk through an event in your mind, from alarm and dispatch to conclusion, and include all realistic possibilities for a rescue scenario.
Make the plan initially based on a best-case scenario for responders. This means you can map it out based on best response times, mutual-aid arrival, all resources available, etc. Once you have completed this fairytale, start poking holes in it by applying reality checks. This will help quickly identify your organizational shortfalls in properly trained personnel, equipment, staffing, communications … and the list goes on.
Now build a preliminary plan and document based on a realistic expectation with a plan and proposal for improvements and corrective actions to transcend to something better!
Remember that every rescue event should include a rapid-intervention team (RIT) component. We must be prepared to save our own when things go south. As such, part of the plan should include all of the elements required to pull that off.
#3 Practice the rescue plan
Owners of confined spaces are required by OSHA/NFPA to make their spaces or comparable training spaces available for rescue rehearsals to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). Required is a strong word, but a cooperative approach geared toward saving lives and improving both organizations’ practices and preparation is usually not hard to implement when approached professionally.
Rescue Team members should be thoroughly briefed on the rescue plan. Conduct walkthroughs of the space, and perform building block training evolutions in the space or a similar training prop. Building blocks means that the team can break down task groups and conduct focused training sessions with those areas of responsibilities. For example, one training session might deal solely with hazard assessment and management. This would mean all team members actively deploy all required sampling equipment, reference all related materials, such as MSDS and NIOSH guidebooks, develop purge times and ventilation plans, isolate and lock-out/tag-out required hazards, integrate hazmat operations as needed, and progress toward a real-time scenario assessment with critical analysis or post-incident evaluation.
Once all of the task groups have been completed, a large-scale scenario can be created to put it all together. This will involve a full-blown rescue scenario with mannequins or live “victims” when appropriate.
Keep in mind that this isn’t a one-trick pony. Consistent and recurring practice is essential to performing at a high level when the event occurs. This approach can also help emergency response organizations with complying with NFPA and OSHA recommendations for annual performance of certified rescue skills.
#4. Evaluate the rescue plan
Now poke holes in everything again!
I firmly believe in creating slightly unrealistic expectations and continually moving the bar. This will keep your rescue team on the cutting edge of their capabilities and provide continuous motivation and focus toward a goal. Critically analyze time frames, equipment usage, technical skills, scene management, hazard management, standard compliance and communications. Resist the temptation to pat yourselves on the back when there areas for improvement. Squeeze everything through the filter of rescue vs. recovery and ensure that you are giving your victims the best opportunity for survival.
This phase is also the time to re-engage the space owner and request any necessary changes to the space or their entry operations that might enhance rescue operations.
Once the evaluation is complete, create a corrective action plan with identifiable benchmarks and refine the rescue plan. Now dig back in and start practicing.
Remember that the only real way to vet a plan is to perform it under realistic conditions.
When we competed as a team in GRIMP North America Con Space Rope Challenge, we were overwhelmed initially by the complexity and difficulty of the scenarios and the criteria for success. However, we knew that the scenarios had all been vetted by the evaluators who completed all the scenarios as a team and then established the performance goals. That means it can be done – with proper training and resources.
Our communities are depending on us
In conclusion, it can be daunting to implement confined space programming this intensive, but yes, it can be done. The communities that count on us deserve our best preparation, so be encouraged and set to it. Stay safe and train hard.
[Read next: Essential tools for confined-space rescue]