In August 1991, Belleville firefighters were called to rescue two sewer department workers who were overcome by sewer fumes in a sewer line off South Illinois Street.
One sewer line worker, Jack W. Blake, was taken to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Another worker, Edward Schanz Jr., had entered the sewer to rescue Blake but survived the poisonous fumes. Both Blake and Schanz were pulled from the sewer by firefighters.
On Monday, 14 firefighters participated in a class designed to train firefighters how to rescue someone from a sewer line. Firefighters were slowly lowered into a 20-foot deep sewer line at the city’s wastewater treatment plant on Environmental Drive. They used air tanks so they wouldn’t succumb to the sewer fumes.
One thing I hope I never have to do is call them.
Randy Smith Sr., assistant director of the city’s sewer department
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“One thing I hope I never have to do is call them,” said Randy Smith Sr., the assistant director of the city’s sewer department. “And they’re the same way, they hope they never have to” perform a sewer rescue, he added.
“Now’s the time to get some of the bugs out because (when) you get to the scene, it’s pandemonium.”
Smith, who was with the sewer department the year Blake died, said it’s a “night and day” comparison if you look at the department’s equipment today versus the equipment available 25 years ago.
“We have to retrain every year,” Smith said. “We make sure our equipment is up to date. We can’t stress it enough.”
Sewer workers have to enter a sewer line about every two months. Smith said the department will “game plan” how to tackle each problem.
Smith, who was in Bloomington for a meeting on the day Blake died, said the department immediately began an “intense” safety program.
They have a tripod and harness system to lower and raise workers and masks hooked to an air tank with a 100-foot hose. Also, they use meters to check the air quality before entering a sewer. Hydrogen sulfide is a gas that sewer workers can encounter.
Blake, who was 52, and the other crew members did not have any of this equipment with them when Blake went down the line to dislodge a chunk of grease, Smith said.
After Blake’s death, the state Department of Labor issued 11 “serious” violations against the city for not providing the proper equipment and training for safe entry into sewer lines.
Fire Chief Tom Pour said Monday’s training exercise is part of the fire department’s overall rescue training mission.
He said all 60 firefighters in the department will receive training on a sewer line rescue. Other training includes water rescues and grain silo rescues.
And last year, the department formed a 16-member technical rescue team that is in the process of being certified in four areas:
▪ Rope operations
▪ Confined space operations
▪ Structural collapse
▪ Trench rescue
Pour said the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System is paying for the training worth up $500,000. In exchange for the training usually conducted at the University of Illinois, the city’s team has to respond to calls for aid with at least 10 team members.
Most members of Belleville’s technical rescue team are expected to be fully certified by next year, Pour said.