Maintaining the depths

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

Clothed in a full-body, white protective suit, knee-high rubber boots and a gas mask, a senior airman lowered himself into a man-hole. With each step further down the burnt orange, rusted ladder, the darkness swallowed him until he was completely gone from sight.

 

Senior Airman Christopher Lemming, 9th Civil Engineer Squadron water and fuel systems maintenance journeyman, is a member of a confined space entry team, which conducts general maintenance and inspection of approximately 767 miles of pipe on Beale, including water, sewer, natural gas and fuels.

 

Confined space entry teams also provide the same services with the addition of rescue capabilities to more than 700 confined spaces. But before Airmen can perform on a team, they have to conquer the darkness and tightness of confined space training.

 

“You might be a little bit anxious being down in the hole, but you get down there, and it’s not that much different than being up top,” said Lemming. “We’ve got a job to do, so you’ve just got to go take care of it.”

 

Gary Throm, 9th CES water and fuel system maintenance shop supervisor, said the hardest part of confined space training is entering through a small hole into a large, dark space.

 

“I tell Airmen to close their eyes and just stay there and try to deal with it,” said Throm.

 

In addition to facing the anxiety of darkness and tight spaces, Throm said Airmen deal with safety hazards such as structural collapses and possible fuel tank explosions.

 

“Depending on the fuel stored in the tank, the fuel, vapor and space is always in an explosive range,” said Throm. “Any spark at any time with the right air to fuel mixture ratio can cause that tank to go up.”

 

According to Throm, anything can cause a spark, even something as simple as a ring worn under protective gloves.

 

“My job is to make sure the confined space entry happens safely so everyone goes home,” he said.

 

To mitigate risks, Throm and his teams abide by safety standards set by the Air Force and have a minimum number of team members depending on the type of entry. Training is also conducted year-round to ensure proficiency.

 

While confined space entry isn’t something the 9th CES executes on a regular basis, it’s important for them to keep their skills up to par. Throm said the utilization of confined space entry to complete maintenance on any one of Beale’s 90-plus storage tanks results in a $725,000 to $750,000 in savings, per tank, for the Air Force.

 

“Our usual job is being a plumber,” said Lemming. “Confined spaces are more fun than doing the regular job every day because it’s something not everybody gets to do.”

 

Throm said he’s seen people lose focus because of the darkness, but performing confined space entry is what he loves. With his 31 years of experience, he has ample knowledge to pass on to his Airmen.

 

“New Airmen are always looking around thinking something is going to jump out from behind them because it's a dark space,” added Throm. “They think there's monsters down there that are going to come get you, but the only monster is in your head.”