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Is Your Rescue Team Safe? | 14th June 2019

The goal of rescue operations is to get people into safety. But what about the rescue team? Do they have adequate protection so that they can stay safe and do their jobs well? Can they really focus on the task at hand rather than worrying about their own safety?

It’s a psychological fundamental to first seek for safety before moving on to the higher hierarchies of needs. For example, it’s hard to focus on work and studies if we’re feeling hungry or uncomfortable. It’s a similar case in rescue wherein it could be difficult to focus on others’ safety if the rescue team feels unsafe in the first place. Although it’s a selfless endeavour, rescuers will have more things in their minds if they constantly worry about their own safety. They might still be able to save lives but it could be in exchange for the rescuers’ security. In addition, rescue workers might not be able to effectively rescue the people who are in dire need of help.

Is your rescue team safe?

Following an accident or catastrophe, emergency responders and rescue workers are often the first to arrive on the scene. It’s also often the case that the scene is far from ideal (e.g. adverse weather, unfamiliar surroundings and unpredictable conditions). Rescue workers and emergency responders are also under intense time pressure. Every second counts because lives at stake and the scene and environment are continuously changing.

For example, compromised electrical cables and overhead power lines might fall off anytime thereby endangering people and the rescue team. Construction debris might fall off and injure people present in the scene or certain parts of unstable structures could collapse anytime. In industrial and underground settings we also have to think about confined spaces with concentrated levels of flammable, toxic or hazardous gases and substances. Each mistake is unforgiving because slips, trips and falls might happen anytime and during the most crucial moments.

Rescue workers are exposed to a wide variety of conditions and substances. It even gets worse because of the high levels of uncertainty in each emergency situation. They need to perform prompt action in the face of very limited information about the site and the people they’re about to rescue. Notice that even after a thorough planning and research (and gathering a lot more information than we require) we humans still make mistakes about our decisions. We realise then that emergency situations are far higher in the ladder when it comes to level of difficulty and probability of making mistakes.

With the commitment of rescuers they are able to overcome unfavourable odds and successfully save lives. However, it could be in exchange for the rescuers’ health and security. For instance, confined space rescue is technically challenging because of the unfavourable and unfamiliar environment. Confined spaces prevent easy access and these areas are often poorly lit which makes rescue tasks more difficult. We also have to think about the hazardous materials and substances that could be present in those confined spaces (e.g. storage silos, sewers, underground industrial facilities, mining sites). Those hazards endanger the rescuers’ health (approximately 66% of deaths in confined spaces is attributed to persons attempting to rescue others) and yes, persons in need of rescue in confined spaces only have a small window of time because of possible lack of oxygen and the presence of hazardous gases. This small window of time results to lack of rescue preparation which then unfortunately leads to fatalities, injuries and serious health conditions.

It’s a similar case in mines rescue wherein explosions, collapse and water entry can happen in the most unexpected moment. Poisonous gases were the major causes of deaths because trapped substances in the mining sites get instantly released. The entire situation even gets worse because there’s limited ventilation in the site and lack of entry points. Rescue workers and emergency responders have to deal with these severe restrictions on a regular basis. Figuratively they’re only bringing a small flashlight in facing an insurmountable task and huge challenge.

According to Safe Work Australia, the lives of 47 first responders were already claimed by emergency situations since 2003 (i.e. 47 first responder fatalities since 2003). The hazardous and challenging environments have resulted to fatalities and injuries that are very difficult to prevent. The high uncertainties plus the limited time window have claimed the lives of even the most experienced rescue workers. After all, common emergency situations and environments (e.g. construction sites, mining sites, chemical and industrial areas) are inherently dangerous in the first place even without the emergency situation. The level of danger increases sharply whenever there’s an accident or a huge fluctuation to the everyday operations in the site.

What can we do to improve safety

General and specialised training are available for rescue teams to improve their effectiveness and safety levels. Strong recommendations based on previous events and new findings are also available such as: Adjusting work schedules and rotating personnel to reduce mental stress and physical fatigue, Watching out for signs of confusion before deploying rescue personnel and Decontamination of workers and rescue equipment after the operation or before leaving the site to prevent health effects and spread of pollutants and disease.

Also, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is used to safeguard first responders. There should be adequate protection on the hands, feet, eyes, nose, respiratory tract, lungs, ears and skin. For instance, modern protective eyewear now has side shields for better protection (dust, debris and gases can irritate and endanger the eyes which can come from all sides). It’s also important to have height safety and fall protection systems especially in building fire rescue and other scenarios where there’s significant elevation.

For PPE and other safety gear, you can contact us here at All Trades. As workwear specialists, we understand the strict requirements of both small businesses and huge multinational corporations when it comes to safety. Through the years we’ve also worked with rescue departments when they require high-standard protection and safety equipment for first responders and other emergency personnel.