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Confined-space rescue team: big operation in tight places
Anyone who wishes to contribute to the Colusa County Confined Space Rescue Team, or would like to schedule a visit or training session, can contact Williams Fire Chief Jeff Gilbert at 473-2269.
The deaths of two workers at the Stegeman rice silo south of Princeton in October 2005 may have saved the life of another man trapped in a wheat silo in Dunnigan this week.
The nearly three-hour operation Tuesday morning involved 37 firefighters from nine departments, including 17 members of the Colusa County Confined Space Rescue Team and a team from the nearby Yoche Dehe fire unit.
"Every one of them did something. There was no standing around. It took all hands," said Williams Fire Chief Jeff Gilbert, the scene commander of the team operation.
Casey Cox, chief of the Arbuckle Fire Protection District, was the incident commander.
It was one of his men, Carlos Diaz, who stayed in the silo, suspended from ropes for more than two hours, to comfort the man who had become trapped up to his chest in 25 tons of rice.
Diaz, the only team member who spoke Spanish, is credited with keeping the man relatively calm.
The other team members, Gilbert said, rotated in and out in one-hour shifts.
The operation was tedious and technical, and involved improvising a plywood barrier around the man before the wheat could be vacuumed out so he could be lifted free.
But the story really begins on that fall day in 2005.
The suffocation entrapment deaths of Julio Cesar Villanueva and Omar Ramiro Aguilera triggered changes to the industrial regulations that facilities such as Stegeman's had to follow.
"Cal-OSHA was at that recovery," recalled Jeff Winters, chief of the Sacramento River Fire Protection District, the lead agency at the scene.
"They started to investigate Stegeman and then went around to all the warehouse and drying facilities in Colusa and (other counties)."
Winters said the safety rules may have already been in place, but few places were following them at the time. But Cal-OSHA was determined to change that.
Bert Chandar, then with Foothill Warehouse at Husted and Myers, was one of those feeling the heat.
So in June 2008, Chandar went to Williams Fire Chief Jeff Gilbert and urged him to form a confined-space rescue team.
"My first response was, 'No,'" said Gilbert, who did not think the funding would be available, and he was not convinced it would be something the firefighters would want to do.
Chandar was not so easily dissuaded though and kept pushing at Gilbert.
Finally, Gilbert agreed to call a meeting with a few of the industrial representatives in the area, rice millers, chemical companies and few others. He also put together a basic cost analysis.
He found it would take about $40,000 for equipment, and another $8,000 to train 24 firefighters.
"And to my surprise, the (industrial) entities said let's pencil this out," Gilbert recalled. "The said if they could get 25 (companies), that is just $2,000 apiece."
And that was cheap insurance.
"So I took it back to our local fire chiefs and told them (the industrial firms) were willing to put up the money if we were willing to put in the time," Gilbert said.
In the spring of 2009, the first training session of the Colusa County Confined Space Rescue Team was held.
That training includes an intensive 40-hour initial training period, which the Colusa group does over four days under the instruction of Kent Freeman, considered the guru in the field.
The team must also complete a full-entry training session each year. The Colusa County team does at least three.
In fact, they had just completed a training session at the former Riverbend plant in Colusa last Saturday, Gilbert said.
The Yoche Dehe, from the Cache Creek Indian community, also had completed a recent training regimen.
It was not until January 2010 that the Colusa County team was called in. That was to recover the body of a man who had been missing for more than a month.
It took six hours to complete the recovery from a culvert next to the Sacramento River because of air quality and other issues.
The rescue situation in Dunnigan this week, he said, was even more intense.
Gilbert said he could not even see the man who was trapped when he first arrived and started to assess the situation.
He had known the man had entered the silo from a side portal about 15 to 20 feet above the ground, and was now on the opposite side.
But the first task, the chief said, was to begin air quality monitoring.
Because rescuers could not stand on the unstable wheat, each was suspended by ropes that were dropped down from the top of the silo.
They could not, however, simply put a harness around the man, so the next step was to clear out the wheat around him.
Plywood was purchased from an Arbuckle hardware store and cut up to build a makeshift dam around him.
Then a large industrial vacuum pump, secured by still more ropes from the top, was used to suck out the rice around the man.
Once the wheat was down to his knees, the harness was secured and he was pulled up.
That is when a short backboard was attached to the harness and ropes, and he was then guided across the silo and back to the portal he had used to enter the tank.
"The amount of ropes and hardware we had to utilize — that surprised everyone," Gilbert said.
"But the one thing that impressed me was as they were taking (the man) over to the helicopter, he asked them to stop and wanted to thank Diaz," Gilbert said. "He told him to make sure to tell everyone thanks. And that feeling makes it all worthwhile."
And the man had reason to be thankful. Only about 5 percent of silo entrapments in the United States are successful rescues, Gilbert said. He said the man who had been trapped was in stable condition and reported to be doing well in a Sacramento area hospital.
In addition to the victim's gratitude, there may be another immediate benefit.
Gilbert said a representative of the County Line warehouse, who had watched the rescue operation, dropped off a check to the Arbuckle fire station in support of the team the very next day.
It is not that the team has not gotten support — it has — but there have been firms that could someday benefit from such a rescue that have been reluctant to contribute.
The biggest reason given, Gilbert said, they did not think the team would ever be needed.
Now that has changed.
Gilbert said 24 more firefighters will be trained soon, bringing the total to more than 50 in Colusa County and nearby Meridian in Sutter County.
Gilbert said that because training is more effective in smaller groups, the chiefs will begin developing smaller units within the larger team. They will, however, be a mix of different departments.
"Colusa will not have its own team; Williams will not have its own team," Gilbert explained.
He thinks the work this team has done has helped break down some of the territorial and political differences the departments sometimes have had.
In time, Gilbert said, he is hoping this might also lead to the development of water rescue and hazmat teams, but there are no plans pending.
In the meantime, the team is putting together a planning book of area facilities and locations that have confined spaces. The new PG&E plant near Maxwell, for example, has more than 250.
"We want to know what is there before we get there," Gilbert said.