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Texas Rescue Firm Trains Global Clients
Vol 20 Issue 2

Think of the training props at Industrial Rescue Instruction Systems as playground equipment for adults. Students climb on it, crawl through it and dangle from ropes tied to it. But playing with this equipment is anything but a good time. IRIS owner David Owens is serious about making his high angle and confined space scenarios as realistic as possible.

You may have to climb barrel ladders or switchback stairs wearing bulky hazmat suits and breathing apparatus. As if rigging rescue ropes to lower a patient from a process unit is not difficult enough already, a piercing screech suddenly fills your ears. Without warning, blinding smoke begins filling the confined space you're trying to access.

"One thing I take pride in is we don't sugar coat it," Owens said. "I don't want to upset anybody, but we have to get under their skin to get the point across."

Even advanced students have been known to become frustrated. In mid-rescue, Owens might tell a student that his breathing air has been shut off, forcing him to use his escape pack. A flange begins leaking overhead. Electrical cords hanging from a collapsed scaffolding simulates the threat of electrocution. No emergency scenario is ever repeated twice.

"A lot of companies do their hazmat training in the parking lot," Owens said. "Here we do it realistically."

Based in Beaumont, TX, IRIS trains nearly 3,000 students a year in the intricacies of high angle rescue, confined space rescue, hazardous materials, incident command and EMS. Owens supplies prospective clients with a list of nearly 50 references with includes names like Exxon/Mobil, BASF, Chevron, DuPont, Goodyear, Rhodia, Dow, Premcor and BP.

The customer list for IRIS includes plants and refineries nationwide and, in some cases, international, Owen said.

"We've only lost three customers out of several hundred in the last five years and one of those went out of business," Owens said.

About the only aspect of emergency response training that IRIS does not want to handle is fire fighting, even though Owens and his instructors are more than qualified.

"I wanted to specialize," Owens said. "I didn't want to turn this into a 1-800-DO ANYTHING kind of company."

However, even that is changing. Due to demand from several of IRIS' customers the company has agree to conduct fire training classes, he said.

Teaching rescue has been the core business for IRIS since the company was founded by Walter Nebgen in 1983. Years before industrial rescue became "cool," Nebgen taught a proven system of rescue to industrial responders around the world, Owens said.

"He taught industrial rescue all the way back in the 1960s," Owens said. "I've got some of the textbooks he wrote. He was one of the first authors on the subject. Most of the companies and universities that teach rescue that I'm aware of started using Walter Nebgen's books."

Owens and Nebgen first met when Owens was in a fifth grader growing up in Beaumont. The young Owens volunteered as a Red Cross representative. Back in the 1960s, the Red Cross maintained an emergency response unit in Beaumont with Nebgen in charge. The two renewed their friendship when Owens went to work for Mobil Chemicals in Beaumont, joining the plant's emergency response team.

"He encouraged me to start teaching with him," Owens said. "I did a lot more free classes with Walter than paid. If a company said they weren't trained and didn't have any money we would do the classes anyway."

While still working at Mobil, Owens became Nebgen's lead instructor at IRIS with an agreement that he would buy the company when Nebgen retired. However, Nebgen became terminally ill in 1998, forcing Owens to step into a leadership role many years ahead of schedule.

Fortunately, Nebgen finished a project that had been on the drawing board nearly 20 years and took nearly six years to build - a training facility specifically designed to teach rescue.

"That way when a guy trains here it is no different from what they do in their facility," Owens said.

The multi-level structure used for high angle rescue dominates the IRIS training field, but it has plenty of company. Confined space rescue is taught inside an 8-foot by 17-foot vessel complete with a collapsed scaffolding inside that can be adjusted for different scenarios. A process unit, pump and loading rack combination simulates more than 40 various hazmat leaks.

"You may have a situation where you're responding to the truck, and pull everybody off the multi-level structure," Owens said. "Then a leak develops on the structure. This situation can escalate as big as the instructor wants. We can run field operations out here, establish incident command in the office and let them run full scale scenarios using radios."

Why does rescue training require the same attention to detail usually given to fire training? OSHA statistics show that in 67 percent of rescue operations there is also an injury to a rescuer. Too often that injury can be blamed on failure to recognize that industrial settings present special problems when it comes to rescue procedures. One example cited by Owens involves rescue harnesses.

"The standard that OSHA stands behind calls for a harness with a high point D-ring on the back," he said. "Some companies prefer a chest D-ring. Those are great if the rescuer using the harness is conscious, alert and able to hold himself up while being lowered into an entry point or manway."

The downside is that when a person becomes incapacitated, his natural reflex is to let go, Owens said. He leans back and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to lift him out of the hole. That situation has arisen in at least two rescues at Texas industrial facilities this year, Owens said.

At IRIS, the recommended harness comes equipped with shoulder D-rings, Owens said. That way, whether the patient or rescuer is conscious or unconscious, he stays in a vertical position.

"The problem is at most training facilities if you ask the instructor if they've ever worked in an industrial setting, the answer is no," Owens said. "Ninety percent of them are municipal responders. Ask how you rig to a certain type of reboiler and they have no idea what you're talking about."

Too often, companies decide to pursue rescue training only after someone gets hurt, Owens said.

"When rescuers get hurt it's not because a rope broke or a tripod fell over or a harness came undone," Owens said. "Rescuers are getting hurt because we're making dumb decisions."

In rope rescue the best general rule to follow is KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid! Three teams visiting IRIS were given the same rescue scenario to work. The advanced team with many hours of training took nearly two hours to complete the exercise. Later the same scenario was assigned to two new teams with only basic skills. They successfully completed it in 21 and 16 minutes, respectively.

"The brand new teams went in without making it complicated," Owens said. "They kept it simple, relied on their basic skills and got the patient down. The advance team was too busy arguing over different techniques. It's mindboggling to me how someone can build these eccentric systems when something simple can accomplish the same thing."

Some would argue that time doesn't matter as long as the rescue is conducted safely. Tell that to an injured patient who might bleed to death during a two-hour rescue attempt that could just as easily been accomplished in 15 minutes, Owens said.

Fortunately, IRIS's instructors lead by positive example. Recently, a worker at an area refinery suffered a stroke atop a 100-foot storage tank with a sunken floating roof. Greg Sterling, a lead instructor for IRIS, was called to the scene in his capacity as rescue team leader for the nearby Nederland Fire Department.

Working with the medics, Sterling and another firefighter were able to get the patient topside, package him in a basket and lower him to a waiting ambulance. The ambulance then transported the patient to a helicopter for the trip to the hospital. The entire operation took 16 minutes, Owens said.

"They nailed it," he said. "It was good solid textbook work."

In March, IRIS takes another major forward as a leader in emergency response training. Owens and his instructors will be spending eight weeks in Kuwait conducting "train the trainer" courses on rescue and hazmat for Equate and Dow. It will be the company's first trip overseas, Owens said.

"When they first contacted us I told them we would be interested in bidding for the job," he said. "They told me that a bid process was not involved. They had decided that we were going to do it."

For more information about IRIS, call (409)924-0710 or visit their web site at


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F: (979) 690-7562

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