Near-Miss Reporting: CO2 Incidents

Recent CO2 incidents that have been submitted to the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System exemplify the benefit of the program’s abilities to recognize and analyze similar events and outcomes that jeopardize firefighter safety.

Report #11-241 shows that responders must be aware of their surroundings and contributing factors when operating at a medical call:

At 2106 hours our engine company was dispatched to a local restaurant for a fall injury. The engine company found the patient, who was a restaurant employee, at the top of a stairwell that leads to the basement storage area.

Crew members began the regular line of questioning and treatment for what seemed to be a standard medical call. The patient stated that she was going into the basement to check on something and became lightheaded and fell. As the captain from the engine was questioning the patient and one firefighter was checking vitals, the other firefighter and the engineer went into the basement to see if the patient had tripped or slipped on something. Shortly after entering the basement both crew members became lightheaded and exited the basement.

The crew had no information from anyone that would even give us the slightest thought that something else might be wrong. Upon exiting the basement, the engineer fell and both members reported dizziness and a bitter taste in their mouths. The captain immediately called for a hazardous-materials assignment and evacuated everyone out of the building.

This report sheds light on the use of liquefied CO2 systems in many fast food restaurants. The containers that store liquefied CO2 may be located on the ground floor or in the basement. At either location, a leak in the system that isn’t captured by any sensor-alarm device will start to displace oxygen in that area. In confined spaces, it will also saturate the environment with CO2 and cause toxicity to the human nervous system.

CO2 is odorless and colorless, so a firefighter or EMT who enters an oxygen-deficient IDLH atmosphere without being properly protected will succumb to its effects.

The lessons learned from these incidents need to be shared with all first responders:

  • Preplanning is vital in locating and understanding the operations of any liquid/gas storage systems in restaurants.
  • Some storage tanks may not be regulated by any code.
  • Don’t rely on signage, as there may be no placards or warnings indicating the presence of bulk compressed gas at a facility.
  • A CO2 alarm system may be in place but not functioning.
  • Crews are routinely dispatched to check-odor calls. Serious consideration should be given to designating these types of calls as hazmat emergencies.
  • CO2 can mimic the chemical properties of natural gas, causing some combustible gas detection equipment to read a false positive.

The Phoenix Fire Department has designed an important firefighter safety alert and accompanying video, which can be viewed on the department’s website.

The Near-Miss Reporting System website is an excellent tool for finding similar events and lessons learned from our firefighters.

If you have experienced a near-miss incident with CO2 tanks, please submit your report today. Information gathered on these types of incidents will help raise awareness of this significant hazard.

John C. Woulfe III is the assistant director of the IAFC’s National Programs and Consulting Services.

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