The Yin and Yang of Rescue
I started playing on ropes a long time ago in the Armed Forces. When I released from the Army and joined the Fire Service, my rope knowledge was increased. This occurred due to experiences and training as I went from Team Member to Instructor on our Technical Rescue Team.
This was, in our area, a relatively new field of operations. The first official rope rescue tasking for our department occurred in 1994 (some departments had been providing rope rescue services, in some manner prior to this). Just as there was a learning curve coming from the military rope systems to the fire service rope systems, there would be another learning curve inside the Fire Service as the Fire Services in British Columbia (BC) grew into this new tasking.
In 2003 our department started into confined space rescue. Once again the learning curve from rope rescue to confined space rescue was sharp.
To provide some background and context, in the early 1990’s in BC, the Technical High Angle Rope Rescue Program (THARRP) came into effect. This program took certain industry classifications and assessed them a slightly higher assessment on their payroll. This was done through their workers compensation premiums. This “extra money” was then given to the Fire Service, through an application process, in order to fund rope rescue. However, this was for high angle only and not confined space rescue. Then in 1998 our Provincial Regulations OHS/HSE regulations (WorkSafe BC – WSBC) changed, and having the capability to rescue a worker from a confined space became a written requirement. As such, the private rescue industry began to fill the void between THARRP and what WSBC required for confined space rescue.
In the early 2000’s, I began working private rescue standby. We were almost exclusively full time emergency service personal working on our days off. The statement, “you don’t know what you don’t know”, could sum up these early days of industrial rescue. Like the learning curves from the Military to the Fire Service and within the Fire Service, there was a learning curve in private rescue. While we had some very competent rescuers on sites, these rescuers were not well versed in the requirements, safety procedures, policies or culture on industrial and construction sites. As such, one could imply that we caused as many issues as we solved.
Prior to telling the remainder of this story please keep this in mind: I am not trying to throw anyone under the bus here. The company I was employed by when the first portion of the story takes place no longer exists.
I am using these stories to outline the progress private rescue has made over the years and as a learning tool for organizations hiring private rescue providers.
My first rescue standby job exemplifies this juxsposition. I arrived on site at a Waste Water Treatment Plant, received a 30-minute site indoc, and was sent out as a hole watch and rescue team member. While I was qualified to both the rope rescue and confined space rescue technician level (terminology of the day), I had limited gas monitor or industrial hole watch training. Yes, as part of the training I had taken for my rescue certificates we had spent an hour on gas monitors, and we had to act as an edge attendant (hole watch) for a rescue. However “monitoring” a rescue drill and monitoring a live hole where workers are entering, are two different animals. I did not see (and did not know to ask for) any hazard assessment, entry procedures, rescue procedures, WHIMIS, emergency contact info, etc. I had my Fire Service FMR3 ticket, however no OFA ticket as required by WSBC. I was given an air horn and told to use it if there was an emergency. We were solid rescuers, however we knew very little about the regulations required for work on a working site.
As I was sitting down to read the newspaper at hole 1, events were unfolding in hole 2 that would have me conducting my first private rescue within 20 minutes of being on my first site.
In hole 2 the worker was on scaffolding sandblasting the inside of a waste digester. The worker’s scaffold guardrails were interfering, so the worker removed them. Shortly thereafter, with vision reduced by PPE (hood) and the sandblasting, the worker walked off of the scaffold and fell 35 feet to the bottom of the space. I was pulled from my paper by the other rescuer sounding the air horn. I informed the workers in the space I was watching to evacuate and ran to the other hole.
We had a three-person team on site that day. Rescuer 1 and I immediately accessed the patient via 35 foot unguarded ladder. Rigger 1 (who was also the TL) started rigging the rescue lines outside the space. Once on the floor of the space, Rescuer 1 and I started our priority action approach; packaging the patient onto a spine board and then into a basket stretcher (yes basket stretcher, not a SKED or Spec Pak).
The rescue itself went very well. Working in a dark, wet, dirty space on a live rescue was exhilarating. This was in the days of diamond lashing patients onto the spine board and into the basket stretcher with tubular webbing. With poor visibility and digester dirt covering all things, good communications were required. Even though Rescue 1 and I were from two different fire departments, we moved through our actions and drills as a well-oiled machine. This does speak to the level and type of training the fire departments rescue teams were receiving. We had the patient packaged, 5:1 mechanical advantage and safety line rigged, and patient removed from the space and brought down to the sidewalk prior to the arrival of the local full time emergency services (under 10 minutes). Rescuer 1 and I however were covered in digester dirt (human waste) and were wearing no PPE outside of harness, rescue helmet, rope gloves, boots and hi-vis vest. The site was shut down for the day. While the rescue went well, I would suggest it should have never occurred.
Fast forward 12 or so years. I am still a firefighter and still working private rescue standbys. Under the new company we strive to be a learning organization and have reviewed incidents such as the above. From these reviews we have created SOP’s and requirements for our staff. Prior to going onto a site, our staff are required to take industrial fall protection, confined space, gas monitoring as well as WHIMIS and Lock Out/Isolation training. If they do not have a regulatory recognized first aid ticket they are sent through a recognized first aid course. They are given updated training on rescue techniques, as well as advanced rigging training. It takes on average a week to take a rescue-qualified firefighter and put them on an industrial site as a rescue team member. Staff on site are also required to perform onsite training and orientate themselves with all gear and locations they may rescue from. This all paid off on a site we were on last spring.
We were working on a heavy industrial site, augmenting a client’s industrial Fire Brigade. This was a great opportunity for our staff (primarily city firefighters) and the client’s staff (industrial firefighters) to have a two-way exchange of knowledge. As part of our duties our staff walked the site every few hours. They found all the confined spaces that were being entered that shift. They pre-planned the spaces. They checked all gear. They trained with the client’s staff in order to enhance interoperability.
Then the radio call came in; a worker was in full arrest at the 170-foot level of a tower structure on site.
Staff jumped into the medic truck and responded emergency a short distance. They reached the base of the tower (which was through a maze of scaffolding and piping), grabbed the gear and started the run up 170 stairs. They reached the patient and started first aid protocols. As this was occurring the team also had the crane operator rig and lift the dedicated emergency platform (DEP) to their level. This is pre-planning at its best. Some areas of the tower require technical rope rescue and the team brought gear for that scenario, if required. Once they arrived they knew they could get the DEP close to their location, reducing the time required to get the patient to further medical assistance. The patient was secured into the DEP and lowered with the rescuers to the ground. Taglines were used to ensure the lower went smoothly. The handover to local emergency health services was completed. The worker lived.
The comparison of the two rescues is not to lay blame or dole out accolades. It is to identify the learning curves that have had to occur in the private rescue industry. It is to outline what your private rescue provider should be doing on your site.
These rescuers not only need to be rescue experts, however, they also need to have a good working knowledge of local safety regulations and their client’s sites. They need to conduct pre-planning, onsite training and site familiarization. They need to perform these duties in order to maximize the efficiency of a rescue should it occur.
I can attest that workers lives depend on it.