Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Psychological PPE: Safeguarding against distractions

By James Rychard and Ken Gaskin   

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Photo: Craig Eveson

Taking a methodical approach

The one thing that the fire service is known for is its ability to adapt and mitigate situations. When an emergency arises in a community, firefighters respond with their mobile toolbox on hand; fire apparatus having capabilities to mitigate almost any scenario. Riding those mobile toolboxes are also firefighters and fire officers who have experience and training. These are the technical rescuers: with specialty training such as water, hazmat, rope, trench, and confined space, these rescuers are commandeered for higher-than-normal risk situations. For the London Fire Department (LFD) in 2004, that is exactly what they were deployed for.

When a volunteer fire department does not have the capability to provide higher-level technical protection, they rely on municipal fire departments whose operating budgets are larger than theirs to do so. This is what both mutual and automatic aid provides: it delivers a level of redundancy of protection for communities. The Embro Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department did exactly that; they reached out to the LFD and their technical rescue team to help with a situation they faced at the Federal White Cement Company on Aug. 28, 2004.

Mr. Efrain Del Valle was Columbian and spoke no English. Joining him was his 18-year-old son and two others; together, they made up a four-person team hired to clean out the interior of a cement silo. Mixed with powder and solid cement debris the size of small rocks and boulders, Efrain and his crew worked safely from a tripod positioned overhead. Suddenly, the floor of powder and cement beneath Efrain—who was working the furthest down in the silo—gave way. The other three workers, including Efrain’s son, made it out. However, in the attempt to climb out themselves, they indirectly sent material cascading down to Efrain; like sand falling in an hourglass. Trapped and with the unfortunate luck that he now had a frayed cable that kept his harness connected to the tripod above, any more unnecessary movement and pressure to try and pull him out could snap the remaining metal fibres completely, which would lose the ability to keep him connected to the tripod. Now stuck and feeling the looming pressure and weight of the material around his torso, not to mention the pain from his shovel being pinned against his knee, time was of the essence to get him out safely and quickly. 

Enjoying a relaxing day off, Capt. Mike Black received the call regarding the situation. Black, who was the team coordinator of LFD’s technical rescue team, responded along with members of his off-duty platoon. They were joined by the on-duty crew of Rescue Two for the response. Upon arriving on scene and recognizing how intricate the rescue would be, Black “ordered all conveyors and augers operating within 100 meters shut off and locked out”; one of the biggest fears in silo rescues is vibration that can cause the material to shift and collapse. For Efrain, now lodged in the narrow part of what was an hourglass because he fell into an air pocket, and uncertain if he would continue to sink, any additional vibration could place him in further danger. 

After setting up their own tripod and rope system, one of the technical rescuers was carefully lowered down to secure Efrain and assess the situation. Confirming that a huge slab of concrete loomed over top of Efrain, the LFD had yet another anomaly to contend with. The situation was direr than originally anticipated: surrounded by powder and chunks of cement like boulders of rock, all materials that surrounded Efrain were unstable and, without warning, could subside, unleashing an avalanche of material.

There is a saying when doing an activity: when you miss three steps, there is a higher probability of something unforeseen and unplanned happening. Take, for example, tying up your shoes. It’s so automatic that we can do it with our eyes shut. That is the power that stems from our long-term memory – it becomes automatic. However, taking three steps away from the automatic memory of the activity, usually because of some form of distraction, can take us completely off track. An article written in the National Library of Medicine supports the importance of keeping distractions out for patient safety.

Having endured the entire 14-hour emergency from start to finish, Efrain had nothing but gratitude for the efforts and technical expertise of the firefighters who responded to his situation.

The article, although written for the hospital setting, still rings true for the importance of clean distraction-free environments. “Distractions and interruptions include anything that draws away, disturbs, or diverts attention from the task at hand, forcing attention on a new task at least temporarily. Attending to the new task increases the risk of error with one or both of the tasks because the stress of the distraction or interruption causes cognitive fatigue, which leads to omissions, mental slips, and mistakes. [Distractions and interruptions] affect prospective memory, that ability to remember to do something that must be deferred.” Multi-tasking is immensely powerful, especially when working in a complicated environment/scenario, just as the LFD faced. There was looming pressure that resulted from both technicality and time. 

To help ensure there are minimal distractions and interruptions, the fire service industry uses checklists in the form of our Standard Operating Guidelines to keep us on track. On that day in August 2004, the LFD relied on three of them.

A fire department’s Standard Operating Guidelines provide the steps needed for a particular activity. But when you have three specialties working simultaneously, operations must be done slowly and methodically to ensure no steps are missed. This is where the co-author of this article, Capt. Ken Gaskin, comes in. Capt. Black felt he needed to make entry of the silo to assist the technical rescuer and passed command to Gaskin to ensure everything remained methodical and precise in execution. As fatigue began to set in, there was the possibility of making errors, and many lives were at stake. All rope harnesses, carabiners, and personal protective equipment needed to be checked and re-checked before personnel could be lowered into the silo. Even the tripods themselves, one hooked up to Efrain and the other to the technical rescuers, needed to be reassessed with each lowering and hauling back up. Regardless, it was tiring and essential to do so many checks. The success of the operation depended on them. 

The team was informed that an industrial vacuum truck was available. The truck would be used to help suck out some of the material that surround Efrain. Having a small diameter tube attached to a pike pole worked well for dust and gravel-sized concretions but posed a bigger problem for sucking up the larger chunks of solidified cement, which required constant unplugging.

The technical rescuers reassured Efrain every chance they got, even if it was just a pat on the head signalling that everything was going to be ok. Having endured the entire 14-hour emergency from start to finish, Efrain had nothing but gratitude for the efforts and technical expertise of the firefighters who responded to his situation. 

Firefighters everywhere adapt and overcome daily, but for the LFD, their expertise, endurance and training were tested in one of the biggest rescues the region faced, and they were successful because they never skipped a step. 

References

  1. Grissinger, Matthew. “Sidetracks on the Safety Express.” National Library of Medicine. Accessed at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4357347/.  

In addition to being a firefighter and R2MR instructor from the city of Burlington, Ont., James Rychard is an advocate for mental and behavioural health in the fire service, sitting on multiple association committees. He can be reached at jaymzr007@hotmail.com.

Ken Gaskin, now retired, worked for the London Fire Department from 1980 to 2012. In addition to being a technical team lead, Gaskin was the Captain on Rescue 2 as well as a past VP for Local 142 LPFFA.


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