People say things happen when you least expect them, and that was certainly true on Jan. 18 in Sugar Creek Township, a rural community in southwestern Indiana. A call came in, and Engine 42 was dispatched for an unconscious person. Like many other fire departments in the United States, most of our responses are EMS, so there was no surprise at the initial dispatch. However, that quickly changed. While en route, dispatch advised that the victim was located on a radio tower.
It had been more than a year since a firefighter had attended a rope rescue school. We had used our high-angle rope rescue equipment occasionally during in-service training, but no one could recall the last time the equipment was used in an actual rescue.
Of our 50 member department, we were the only two rope technicians available to respond that day. Sugar Creek Fire Department had responded to various incidents where ropes were used as safety lines to remove victims from ditches in automobile accidents, but neither of us had tested those skills until that cold day in January.
Assessing the situation
When Engine 42 arrived on the scene, we found a “dot” far up on the 625-foot radio tower. That dot, located about 475 feet above the ground, was the victim, who had suffered a cerebral aneurysm. The man was hanging by his safety harness, slumped over backward and motionless. The co-worker was already on his way up the tower to assist the victim. Unfortunately, no information on the victim's condition was available.
We developed a rescue plan, assuming this was in fact a rescue operation. The plan was to set up an anchor point above the victim's location, use a brake-bar rack to lower the victim with one rescue line, and use another rope as the safety line with tandem Prusik belay.
As soon we and Deputy Chief Darrick Scott readied our harnesses, helmets and other rescue equipment inside a building, we started for the base of the tower to begin our ascents. The tower was very old and wasn't equipped with a climbing safety cable or ladder, so we decided to use tubular webbings and carabiners to accomplish. Webbings were tied to harnesses, and carabiners were attached on the other end of webbings approximately three to four feet away from harnesses. We hooked ourselves to the steel structure with carabiners and would climb a few feet. Then, while maintaining three points of contact, we would detach from below and re-attach the carabiners higher to continue the ascent. It was a time-consuming effort but necessary to maintain safety. The second issue faced was the weather. On that day the ground temperature was 15°F with a wind speed of 12mph. There was no way of determining the actual temperature on the tower at 475 feet up, but it was estimated at -30°F.
The first rescuer to ascend didn't carry any rope rescue equipment so as to reach the victim as quickly as possible. The remaining two rescuers were to carry all the equipment, a much more difficult ascent.
After about 45 minutes of climbing, the victim was reached. He was conscious but highly confused. While we were on our way up, the co-worker had placed an additional safety line to the victim. This line was the same rope being used to hoist a radio cable up the tower. The co-worker said this rope could be used to lower the victim. The co-worker descended the tower to prepare his rope system for lowering.
The victim's condition could not be worse. He had lost his gloves and his hands were becoming frostbitten. He also was suffering an altered level of consciousness and did not understand the situation, attempting to climb up the tower and messing with his harness. Based on the victim's condition, the decision was made to lower the victim by the rope established by the victim's co-worker without an additional safety line.
We spent about 20 minutes waiting for ground crews to assemble for the descent. They used a truck as an anchor and friction point, while seven firefighters controlled the lowering rope. The victim was lowered without any rope-rescue hardware until Watson descended to the ground and placed a brake-bar rack on the rope.
Lowering the victim was more difficult and strenuous than expected due to the confusion of the victim and his inability to assist the rescuers. The victim continually tried to climb up and even hook himself to the tower. Kajitani was forced to push and kick the victim away from the tower to assist the lowering effort.
After 40 minutes, the victim was lowered to an aerial platform provided by nearby Honey Creek Fire Department. The victim was immediately placed under the care of ALS ambulance paramedics, as well as an emergency room physician/firefighter who responded on Honey Creek's aerial. The victim was stabilized at the local emergency room and transported to an Indianapolis hospital via helicopter.
Don't be fooled
That day in January, we realized the potential for high-angle rescues in our response area, let alone the surrounding counties. We cover a 46-square-mile area, serve a population of 10,000 and respond to more than 800 emergencies per year. The terrain is hilly, but no major or drastic elevation changes exist. The tallest building in the county is 15 stories, but it isn't in our response area.
The plan is to send an additional 10 firefighters to rope-rescue schools. Once we have 16 firefighters certified as Level II technicians, those same firefighters will receive swiftwater-rescue training. Our goal is to become a regional rope and swiftwater-rescue team. We do not want to be “jack of all trades and masters of none,” so we intend to specialize in rope and water, and depend on mutual aid assistance for confined space, trench, building collapse and the like. We will still be knowledgeable in those areas, but they will not be our specialty. In the meantime, we found that it's important to:
Know your response area
We were fooled by not having buildings over four stories high and overlooked other potential areas. Learn where you might use ropes and do some preplanning; know contacts for buildings, radio towers and the like.
Just knowing your equipment is not enough. We could say “practice makes perfect,” but that isn't true. It should be “perfect practice makes perfect.” Only when trained with the right techniques will you perform your rescues with the right techniques.
Use the correct equipment for the job
By preplanning and knowing potential incidents in your area, you can purchase the appropriate equipment. There's nothing more discouraging to a fire chief than to buy a piece of equipment and have it sitting on a shelf, not even being used in training.
Problems always arise, whether it's structural firefighting, hazmat response or technical rescue. We encountered two significant problems. One portable radio was dropped during the ascent, and only one rescuer was equipped with a radio harness. However, his radio battery died halfway down his descent with the victim, and he had no alternative methods of communication. All rescuers should be equipped with radio harnesses or other devices that can secure radios. It's also important to carry a secondary means of communication. This could include an extra radio and/or battery, mobile phone or whistle.
Carry some basic rescue equipment
Even though the first rescuer must get to the victim quickly to assess the victim and situation, he or she needs to have basic equipment available. If our first climber carried rescue rope, webbings, some Prusik cords and hardware, he could have built a belay system without delay.
Love your gadgets
Every department has someone on staff who loves gadgets — a firefighter who carries all kinds of “toys” on his or her turnout gear or jacket. Such gadgets might come in handy in a special scenario. One rescuer had his personal head-warmer he used with a special mouth piece attached to keep inhaled air warm. He was also equipped with inner gloves he wore under rescue gloves designed for winter mountaineering. There is no way to tell how he would have done his work without these gadgets.
Realize that rescue is a team effort
We knew this, but the event re-emphasized the importance of team work. Three rescue climbers will receive credit for the rescue, but the rescue couldn't have been accomplished without the hard work of 20 firefighters and other emergency responders. As Scott says, “Jeff Gordon can't win a race without his best pit crew.”
Bttn. Chief Paul A. Watson has been a member of the Sugar Creek (Ind.) Fire Department since 1989. He holds certifications in Fire Officer II, Instructor II/III, Hazardous Materials Technician, Inspector II, Investigator, Driver/Operator, Motor Sport Rescue, and Advanced EMT. Watson was trained to Rope Rescue II level by CMC Rescue in 1999. Watson also serves as a member of the Terre Haute Fire Department, where he is ranked a captain.
A member of the Sugar Creek Fire Department since 1999, Firefighter Hidekatsu Kajitani holds a bachelor of science degree in criminology and psychology and a master of science degree in criminology from Indiana State University. Trained as a Rope Rescue Technician at CMC Rescue School in 2003, he has also received specialized training in Hazmat Technician, Rescue Diver/Divemaster, Tactical EMS, Fire/Explosive Investigation, and Executive Protection. Kajitani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rope Rescue Roots
In 1997, Sugar Creek Fire Department sent a few firefighters to a state fire school, where they learned some basics of rope rescue. After they returned, they inventoried the department's rope equipment and requested the purchase of additional items. Chief Jim Holbert and Deputy Chief Darrick Scott asked the usual question, “How many rescues of this nature have we had in the past?” Well, the answer was not many.
Of course, most only think of the high-angle rescues when talking about rope and forget about the frequency of low-angle rescues. Once you have had rope-rescue training, you begin to see all kinds of possibilities. The chiefs, being proactive, gave in and approved the requests.
Then in 1999, three firefighters attended a CMC Rescue School in Kansas City, Mo., and became the department's first Rope Rescue II Technicians. Since that time, additional firefighters have trained to that level. However, training was inconsistent, and the technicians were loosely organized due to the lack of responses.