Over four days in early November, 2016, area firefighters and King County Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD) employees participated in hands-on training in rescuing people from hard-to-reach, potentially hazardous spaces.
These “confined spaces” are defined by how hard it is to get in and out of them, and can have poor or even dangerous air quality. Confined spaces aren’t just a feature of industrial sites: silos and septic tanks also qualify.
Some grim statistics support the need for trained technical response teams and workers who are prepared to immediately call for help when they are needed. More than 60% of confined space fatalities occur among people who try to rescue someone but find themselves overcome by the hazard inside the space- usualy toxic air or lack of oxygen. Tragedy claimed the lives of five workers in 2007 when a fire started in a tunnel and trained rescuers were not available soon enough.
To keep in top shape for a potential response, the Everett Fire Department and the Snohomish County Technical Rescue Team (Fire District 1 and Fire District 7) practiced rescue techniques at King County’s Brightwater Treatment Plant. Each day, about 12 firefighters participated in drills along with Brightwater treatment plant employees.
At the beginning of each drill, the Incident Commander (IC) of a rescue team would learn about the scenario. The IC asked questions to assess possible hazards, potential location of the “victim”, and equipment needs. Then, the IC explained the situation to the rest of the team and they would make decisions on equipment and gear up.
In a confined space rescue scenario, the firefighters responded to an unconscious person (in this case, a safety mannequin) in a small, hard-to-access space. First, they tested the air for harmful gases and aired out the space to make it safe for entry. Then, they used rope techniques and equipment to stabilize the person and prevent additional injuries while getting the victim out of the space. Once the victim was removed, crews administered CPR and first aid.
“All the drills were carried out in noisy areas of the plant, so firefighters used their communications systems during the scenarios,” reported Emily Reiser, WTD safety administrator.
Coordination and the buddy system were critical for a smooth response and safety. “One or two rescuers would enter at a time, and two more fire fighters were geared up on standby in case the initial rescuers needed to exit the space,” Reiser said.
This isn’t the first time King County has partnered with rescue units to train at the Brightwater site. When construction began in 2005, regional fire departments and law enforcement teams carried out training and canine drills in buildings destined for removal. The teams could perform realistic scenarios because it didn’t matter if they damaged the buildings. Honing their skills in a safe environment protects responders in a real event when the stakes are higher and mistakes can be dangerous.
WTD coordinates with local fire departments for similar drills at other treatment plants. These industrial sites offer rescue teams unique training opportunities and help keep wastewater workers sharp.
“The benefit to both agencies- and the community- is that we collaborate together to serve the public.”
Lieutenant Greg Oakes, Fire District 7
“It gives everyone – the firefighters and our plant employees – a chance to practice our procedures for responding to a potential emergency,” noted Jim Faccone, WTD’s Safety & Hazardous Materials Program Manager. “Regular, hands-on training like this is essential to keeping emergency responders as safe as possible on a scene because it keeps people’s skills up-to-date and fresh in their minds.”
Lieutenant Greg Oakes from Fire District 7 helped organize the training. “Being able to use Brightwater for the training was invaluable because it created a realistic environment. These trainings help the team work more effective and efficiently together to handle more complicated emergency situations with greater risk,” he said. “The benefit to both agencies – and the community – is that we collaborate together to serve the public.”