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Jonathan Pennington is vice president of special operations and senior safety professional for McCulley, Eastham & Associates, Inc. (MEA) in Greenup, KY. In this interview, Pennington explains how an MEA special operations team conducted a pre-job, single-victim mock rescue from a 600’ powerhouse chimney.

Please provide a brief description of your professional background and of your positions as vice president of special operations and senior safety professional for MEA.

I provide development, implementation and management of fire, rescue (confined space and high-angle rope), hazmat response and H2S contingency planning solutions for national and international clients. I have worked in the emergency services profession since 1992 and have been professionally employed as a battalion chief of special operations for a municipal response organization and as a deputy fire brigade leader in charge of training for a Fortune 100 company.

I have worked in several sectors of the health and safety profession, including as an emergency medical technician for a county-based emergency medical service. I also worked for several years as a fire protection specialist for a national fire protection firm, a risk assessor for the insurance industry and a safety and security officer for one of the largest hospitals in the Commonwealth of Kentucky before becoming a partner in MEA.

I hold degrees in fire/rescue science and occupational safety and health as well as an M.B.A. in public administration. I also hold the international designation of chief fire officer conferred by the Commission on Professional Credentialing and have been designated Member Grade by the Institution of Fire Engineers. I also am a certified safety professional and a member of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group for Risk Management.

One of MEA’s special operation teams performed a pre-job, single-victim mock rescue from a 600’ powerhouse chimney. Why did the team conduct this mock rescue, and how did they prepare for it?

Universal, Inc. in New Martinsville, WV contracted our firm to provide their company with high-angle rope rescue services while applying coatings to the liners of new flue gas desulfurization units built for Ameren. Based in St. Louis, MO, Ameren is among the nation’s largest investor-owned electric and gas utilities and serves 2.4 million electric and nearly one million natural gas customers throughout its 64,000-square-mile area of Illinois and Missouri.

Chauncey Pegg, safety director for Universal, wanted to ensure that his company complied with the scaffolding regulations, fall protection regulation and ANSI standards for their chimney operations. Universal purchased equipment, trained their employees in self-rescue techniques as required and contracted our firm to select rescue equipment, provide rescue teams and develop the rescue plan that would become part of their comprehensive fall protection program for Ameren operations.

Part of the rescue plan called for a mock rescue to be performed prior to Universal’s coating operation. The mock rescue was established to represent a worst-case scenario that occurred on a powerhouse chimney in WV in 2006. The idea behind the mock rescue was to ensure that employees working within the flue could be rescued from the very top of the chimney should a fire occur on the floating scaffolding, leaving them trapped without any other means of reaching grade level.

Our firm prepared for this mock rescue by first traveling to each of the chimney sites, developing rescue plans and equipment design specifications and identifying any training needs that our current high-angle rescue teams would need.

Once the pre-planning phase was completed, we began working with DBI/Salla to develop the necessary equipment for custom high-point devices for the top of the chimney that would mate up perfectly with the top can angle ring and with Rollgliss of Capital Safety to design rope systems to allow our teams to span the entire length of the chimney and to be able to work the system by themselves if necessary. The Rollgliss System99 mechanical advantage units that we selected each had 2,600 ft of rope rigged in them and were the largest that Rollgliss had ever built.

In addition, we designed fall protection for our rescuers, which included working with ropes so the system had enough stretch to absorb impacts but not too much that a rescuer could potentially strike a lower level if a fall occurred.

When all of the ordered custom equipment came in, our teams set up a mock chimney on our 40-ft training tower and spent several weeks running through scenarios and testing the equipment in different situations to ensure that the equipment performed in the manner we expected. For every rope component in the system, we identified two or more ways to make it work should a malfunction occur. It was important for us to have safety redundancies built into our rescue systems.

What precautions did the team take to protect those who participated in the mock rescue?

We took the same precautions we take for any high-angle movement. We developed a rescue plan with a safety redundancy built into every aspect of the plan. Every team member had specific job tasks and was assigned a safety check function on the next team member’s specific job tasks.

The beauty of what we do in the industrial setting is that we have an opportunity to pre-rig our jobs. We were able to study the needs of each chimney 11 months before we performed the work. No one needed to quickly climb up to the top of the 600-ft chimney and use whatever equipment they had at hand to rig up for a rescue of employees whose lives were hanging in the balance. In the pre-planning process, you have the ability to prepare properly for the successful evacuation of employees in a safe and efficient manner.

How did the mock rescue play out, and what was its outcome? Did the mock rescue yield any new or groundbreaking results?

The mock rescue was successful. The team members removed the mock victim from hanging 40 ft inside the flue to the top of the flue scaffolding. They then lowered the victim to the chimney roof some 20 ft below. At this point, equipment needed to be re-rigged for the last 580 ft to the grade level, and the mock victim needed to be packaged in a stokes basket. The victim and rescuer rode to the ground without any major difficulties. The entire rescue from start to finish took about 1 hr and 45 min. Had the three-person team not been pre-rigged and positioned at the top of the stack, we estimate that it could have taken up to five hours to rescue the mock victim.

What was the greatest challenge the team faced during the mock rescue?

Our teams are highly trained to work in small groups and to accomplish major rescues. It is important that we not only offer an effective package to our clients, but also one that is economically viable as well. When you use a small team to accomplish a worse-case scenario, it is physically demanding for them. We require our team members to participate in physical fitness training at least three times per week. The mock rescue was extremely demanding on team members’ cardiovascular systems, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to have your teams physically and technically prepared for such extreme industrial high-angle rescue.

How do you predict the results of this mock rescue will impact workers from height, emergency rescue workers, the construction industry and fall protection equipment manufacturers?

The verdict is still out. We often hear “No one else does this” or “How are we supposed to compete with other companies who do not subscribe to this level of safety?”

We believe that until the host companies begin to demand 100% compliance with scaffolding and fall protection regulations from their contractors and/or until OSHA places it at the top of its audit list, progress will be made slowly in providing for complete and competent rescue from a fall at height. One can only hope that companies like Ameren and Universal will become the norm and not the exception.

Our firm plans to present at as many conferences as we can during the next few years to inform industry leaders about the true hazards and to demonstrate the difficulty in rescuing a person who is hanging from a fall protection device at height. This is more than a job for our firm—it is our passion.

How will the team incorporate lessons learned from this particular mock rescue into future endeavors?

We learn from every mock rescue we perform. In this particular rescue, the fire/rescue specialist who went over the chimney roof parapet with the victim had his fall protection rope grab engage. This caused a short delay, and the rescuer/victim package needed to be raised up about 1.5 ft to disengage the device. Although this only took a few minutes to accomplish, this is what having the pre-rigged/pre-positioned team is all about. Using this information, we reviewed our rope grab selection and found a device that helps prevent the rope grab from engaging while still providing the needed fall protection.

We also learned to use a process we call “leapfrog.” In this technique, team members who are not responsible for incident command rotate between physically demanding jobs during the rescue to allow for mini rehab sessions while still working through rescue procedures. Todd Eastham, MEA’s founder, proposed this concept during a post-brainstorming session to seek improvement methods. This process has succeeded in reducing overall rescue times during team drills.

On long projects, such as the Ameren campaign, relief teams are assigned so that no team (a team consists of a fire/rescue captain, fire/rescue specialist and fire/rescue technician) works more than two weeks in the field before having one work week off. The team that performed the mock rescue held a debriefing meeting with the relief team to review every aspect of the mock rescue and to share face-to-face any and all lessons learned.

Has MEA achieved any other mock rescue or fall protection milestones within the last year?

Our firm works for many companies across North America. We perform a mock rescue on every job we take. We feel strongly that all jobs that require a rescue team should test the team to ensure performance. In the words of Marshal Foch, “A battlefield does not give opportunity for study, one does what he can to apply what he already knows, therefore, it is necessary that he thoroughly be able to use his knowledge quickly.” We completely believe in the concept of pre-planning, pre-rigging and pre-positioning of teams as the best method for providing workers with protection while they work at height.

Heavier workers and the hazards they face are much debated topics among the ANSI/ASSE Z359 Accredited Standards Committee for Fall Arrest and Protection. Will MEA conduct any similar mock rescues with the heavier worker in mind?

This is a major issue facing rescue teams. Currently, we cannot find mechanical advantage systems rated for the heavier worker that fit rescue requirements. For MEA to rig for the heavier worker, we must use 12 mm static kernmantel rope and other single rope (used in conjunction with a single-rope belay) rescue hardware and software components. These systems work well when lowering a victim; however, they are much more difficult to use when raising a victim.

Teams who use non-mechanical advantage systems must be more technically trained and have a higher level of physical fitness than teams who use pre-engineer mechanical advantage systems (3:1, 4:1 or 5:1 systems). Currently, we do not feel that alone we could produce validated tests results for rescue equipment that would benefit the heavier worker. Our firm would enjoy an opportunity to partner with fall protection manufacturers to assist in testing products for use in rescuing heavier workers.

What are MEA’s plans and goals for the remainder of the year?

Our number one goal is to always be deployed at height, ready and able to rescue. Our most important function is to assist in comprehensive fall protection planning to such a degree that all hazards are removed and the entire worksite is safer because of our knowledge, skills, abilities and visibility to project employees.

We will move to another chimney job for Universal during the last two weeks of November 2008 and plan to perform chimney services throughout 2009 on Ameren projects. A major cryogenic producer has selected our confined space/high-angle teams as one of their top three resources for all of their North American rescue needs.

Our training calendar is nearly full, providing confined space and high-angle rescue and other emergency response training to industrial clients across the U.S. We are in the process of closing an agreement with CSXT for regional emergency hazardous materials team train response and Testnet services.

Additionally, we have been asked if we would be willing to modify our fire/rescue team training and equipment list to provide underground cavern construction site rescue under OSHA regulations for construction. We are currently developing a matrix for this to see if this is a direction our firm wants to explore and the economical impact that it presents to our operations.

Overall, our only desire is to provide the new person on the job the promise of a safe trip home at the end of the shift.

Biography

Jonathan Pennington is vice president of special operations and senior safety professional for MEA in Greenup, KY. He provides development, implementation and management of fire, rescue (confined space and high-angle rope), hazmat response and H2S contingency planning solutions for national and international clients. He has worked in the emergency services profession since 1992 and has been professionally employed as a battalion chief of special operations for a municipal response organization and as a deputy fire brigade leader in charge of training for a Fortune 100 company.

Pennington has worked in several sectors of the health and safety profession, including as an emergency medical technician for a county-based emergency medical service. He also worked for several years as a fire protection specialist for a national fire protection firm, a risk assessor for the insurance industry and a safety and security officer for one of the largest hospitals in the Commonwealth of Kentucky before becoming a partner in MEA.

He holds degrees in fire/rescue science and occupational safety and health as well as an M.B.A. in public administration. He also holds the international designation of chief fire officer conferred by the Commission on Professional Credentialing and has been designated Member Grade by the Institution of Fire Engineers. He is a certified safety professional and a member of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group for Risk Management.