Preparation and training are the keys to effective high-angle rescue.
On a pleasant Saturday afternoon the Gurnee (Ill.) Fire Department heard the familiar tone sound to alert them of an emergency call. A roller coaster had stopped upside down with 24 people trapped on board. A simple joy ride turned into an emergency situation. On scene, two ladder towers were set up underneath the inverted roller coaster. The coaster was stuck in a loop in the upside down position. The passengers were all triaged by age, pre-existing medical conditions and location on the coaster. Passengers who were directly upside down were the highest priority for rescue. The crew at Great America manually released the safety harnesses on the coaster that secured the passengers. The victims were freed from the coaster one at a time onto a ladder tower and then brought to the ground for evaluation and treatment. The incident was a great success with all 24 people being rescued and EMS care given where needed. There was no significant harm to the passengers or rescuers. The incident took about three hours to mitigate.
Technical-rescue teams for high-angle rescue were considered, but not needed for this incident. The roller coaster loop where the train was stuck was about 50-feet high. Although the ladder towers had a difficult time making access, they were successful. The Great America team and Gurnee Fire Department team worked very well together. The incident action plan was to rescue those in harms way with all available resources in a safe and timely manner without incident. This was achieved and all parties were satisfied with the end result.
But what if the ladder towers were not able to reach or make access? Was there an alternate plan ready to execute? Do you have a rope-rescue team trained to the technician level, if needed? If this incident happened on one of the higher roller coasters a high-angle rope rescue would have been needed. The truth of the matter is high-angle rescue is high risk and low frequency. But fire departments must be prepared to respond for those who can't rescue themselves, no matter the height. What is the potential for high-angle rescue in your town? Antenna towers, water towers, cell towers, electrical towers, high rises, mid-rises, industrial complexes, ravines, construction sites, agriculture structures, e.g., silos, confined spaces, water and trench rescue events, and large amusement parks are just a few of the structures that may require rope rescue. Are you prepared to respond and be successful?
The Gurnee Fire Department asked this question and saw the need for a specialized rope-rescue team. Great America alone gives justification for the creation of this team. They currently have 13 roller coasters ranging from 28 feet to 208 feet, which hold up to 36 passengers. They also have a 330-foot circular glass elevator that can hold up to 70 passengers, a variety of water rides and bungee-type rides. All of these attractions present a need for high-angle rescue.
A team was created to perform at heights with confidence in skills such as: knots, anchoring, mechanical advantages, self-rescue, pick-offs, rappelling, ascending, Stokes work, patient packaging and transferring, high-lines, line transfer, and lead climbing. We have seen the benefits of this team. Our department currently has eight rope-rescue technicians to respond to a potential incident and can be supported by adjacent teams in Lake and McHenry counties, as well as other rope-rescue teams throughout the state of Illinois.
These teams are very well equipped and trained. The initial training consists of 80 to 120 hours of rope rescue supported by continuing education annually. Training is where most rope-rescue technicians gain experience and is key to a successful program. Remember there is no room for error at 200-plus feet. One wrong knot or mishap could cost people their lives. Training must be part of the plan.
Heights can be very frightening, which makes the training essential and intense. Overcoming fear is the first obstacle to overcome for many. Imagine asking someone to go over the edge of a structure at 200 feet and telling them that their H-inch, static kernmantle rope with a tensile strength of 9,000 pounds will hold — as long as they tied everything right. The look on their faces is priceless, but even more so is seeing their confidence improve with each training session. Repetition in training is vital in creating confidence and increasing the likelihood of success. The rescue teams are expected to perform at high standards, so they should be given the time and tools to help them meet those standards.
Preplanning is key and has helped prepare us to respond to high-angle incidents. It is important to evaluate the possibilities and brainstorm different scenarios. Our risk assessment has revealed to us that not only passengers on the roller coaster rides are at risk, but also work crews who inspect, paint, weld and do repairs. They can be potentially anywhere on the rides. Through evaluations we have learned access may be difficult, as service roads in the park are not very wide, turns are sharp, and some of the roads dead-end. This means bringing in a ladder tower or a crane can be challenging. Knowing where you can set-up certain apparatus and what you may need before the incident will save time and potentially lives. These days, most departments have mutual-aid agreements with neighboring departments for personnel and equipment. It is helpful to understand where you can get specialized equipment if needed, such as a crane with a man basket.
Making equipment purchases for high-angle rescue is another important aspect of preplanning. For example, we purchased multiple 400-foot rescue ropes for the 330-foot observatory elevator ride. Being prepared with the right equipment can be vital to a successful rescue. Lead-climbing equipment consists of a belay set-up designed to prevent a rescuer from falling. It's made up of dynamic rope, multiple slings and carabineers, and a belay device such as a gri-gri. The Gurnee Fire Department has much more high-angle equipment than most departments would have. Preplanning has encouraged these purchases and has given us confidence that we are adequately equipped if the time comes.
On-site training at Great America has been valuable and essential. Our training events in high-angle rescue at the theme park are focused on passenger rescue and on workers who work on the ride in the high-angle atmosphere (for example, painters). The coasters themselves have safeties built into their design such as lift stations, i.e., is a place where a roller coaster train can stop safely other than the loading station. The passengers can be evacuated down a set of stairs or ladders assisted by park staff at these lift stations. In our assessment of the rescue, profile we believe there is a greater risk to the workers who can be anywhere on these rides. They potentially can climb these structures at any point and climb to the highest point on the ride with only a fall arrest-lanyard. If they need rescuing, we are expected to get them. We have gained so much knowledge and experience through training. We have performed many rescue scenarios from on of the roller coasters. It is important to be familiar and trained on all the rides and potential areas of rescue. We have learned the benefit to having a great relationship with the maintenance staff and safety team at Great America. A unified command is important for a successful rescue.
During our risk assessment of Great America we have learned to prepare for a high-angle incident. We hope the call never comes but feel better prepared if it does. As you look at your community, ask if a high-angle rescue call would be possible. If the time comes to perform a high rescue will your team members be prepared?
James Pellitteri is a lieutenant and 20-year veteran of the Gurnee (Ill.) Fire Rescue Department, where he serves as the training officer/incident safety officer. He is a team leader for the Lake-McHenry county specialized response team and the Illinois USAR team.