HOLDEN, Mass. — Deep within a sewage treatment plant, two workers have passed out from exposure to hydrogen sulfide, and it is up to a crew of firefighters to belay down a shaft, crawl through a narrow passage and rescue the men before they succumb to the toxic fumes.
The scenario is part of an intense three-day training program on confined space rescues held at the Holden Public Safety building, with firefighters from Holden and surrounding communities learning and practicing the various skills and procedures called for when there's an emergency in a tight spot.
The program was developed by Mark McCabe for the Massachusetts Fire Academy, and consists of a half-day of classroom and 2 1/2 days of hands-on practicals, which culminate in the rescue scenario that ties everything together.
"The No. 1 hazard in a confined space are atmospheric hazards that can overcome a person," said lead instructor Richard Hartman, who explained that firefighters have to use protective breathing apparatuses, know how to meter for hazardous materials, and be skilled at rope rescues so they can lift the victim out of the space.
Hartman said a confined space is a location that has limited means of entering and is not meant to be normally occupied, such as a manhole.
With limited room to work and poor ventilation, these uncommon situations often present rescuers with a wide range of potential hazards, from getting wedged or losing oxygen to electric and heat hazards, and the training helps ensure the firefighters are ready to handle every possible scenario.
Confined space emergencies can include anything from workers getting trapped while doing scheduled work at a sewage treatment company, to a child venturing into an abandoned well.
In July, Holden Firefighters had to put such skills to practice when a worker found himself buried chest-deep inside a cement silo at Paquette Concrete on Wachusett Street. Two firefighter/paramedics had to be lowered into the confined space to provide oxygen and stabilize the victim, all while dealing with the heat of the day and working inside a hazardous environment.
To rescue the victim, Holden Firefighter Dave Chapin oversaw the operation from the top, while Firefighter Paramedic Paul Pierce and Lt. Barry Tupper entered the silo to locate, harness and extricate him.