Is it okay to rely on 9-1-1 responders for confined space rescue?
9-1-1 emergency responders can react with amazing efficiency, ready to spontaneously spring into action at a moment's notice. Yet, when we're talking about confined space rescue, that speed isn't going to be enough.
The main hazards in confined spaces are hazardous or oxygen-deficient atmospheres. These hazards act quickly, leaving no time to spare. Seconds count. Even an impressive turnaround from local emergency responders isn't going to cut it.
(Learn more about The Dangers of Gas in a Confined Space.)
Any response time greater than four minutes in a hazardous atmosphere scenario often turns a rescue into a recovery. Emergency responders may arrive at the site within that window, but the real work starts after they get there. Rescuers need to be diligent in preserving their own safety by completing a hazard assessment, selecting and setting up equipment, and donning appropriate PPE- all of which add time. 60% of confined space fatalities are would-be rescuers rushing into hazardous areas and multiplying the casualties, so rescue attempts have to be carefully calculated with hazard controls established and utilized.
Responders may be “ready for anything” in general, but each emergency and each setting is unique. Planning and organizing on site slows the process down far too much to conduct effective rescues in this kind of emergency. One UC Berkeley study found that 9-1-1 confined space rescue times with hazardous materials present ranged from an estimated 70 to 173 minutes. Even on the low end, it's likely to be a retrieval at that point – a worker in an oxygen deficient or toxic atmosphere will be long gone by the time that hour or more has passed.
The most effective strategy is prevention. OSHA requires some pretty robust preparation for sites that will have confined space entries. OSHA 1910.146 lays out specific guidelines for assessment, signage, documentation, supervision, atmospheric testing, competency, and authorization for permit-required confined spaces. The specificity of the guideline implies that chances of successful rescue are complicated by numerous factors. Careful preparation can supplant the need for risky rescue situations.
However, foresight is imperfect and incidents still happen. Can 9-1-1 be relied upon to keep workers safe? The reality is that, even with their commendable bravery and extensive skills, local responders are set up to fail for many confined space rescues. More proactive solutions are available.
A trained rescuer or team should be present at a site where (permit required) confined spaces are being entered. They have numerous advantages over local emergency response because they are familiar with the site, hazards, personnel, and equipment. They've probably had the benefit of performing drills on the actual confined spaces involved, giving them complete, specialized, and accurate hazard assessments way before an emergency occurs. Most of all, they have had the time to carefully consider rescue scenarios outside of the pressure of a real emergency.
All together, on-site rescuers are far better equipped to deal with a casualty without becoming one themselves.
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