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Roco Talks with Fire Chief about Low-Angle Rescue

Saturday, May 8, 2021

During a recent snowstorm, the Woodbury Fire Department responded to an initial call of a car down an embankment. However, upon arrival, things became quite a bit more complicated. Department personnel were faced with a situation that pushed their training limits, and also created some valuable lessons learned.

Fire Chief Burke and Lt. Kauer (Roco Chief Instructor) discuss some takeaways from this rescue event…

What were your thoughts initially when responding to the scene of this accident?

Chief Burke: We initially received a report of a vehicle that had gone over a guardrail and slid down an embankment. We were unsure of the distance the car had traveled off the roadway or the slope of the embankment. Our priority when we arrived would be getting to the vehicle and assessing the conditions of the occupants.

Lt. Kauer: There was significant snowfall occurring, road conditions were pretty bad at the time. Getting to the occupants to provide treatment and protection from the elements was really all we had to go on with the information we had.

What did you find when you arrived on scene and performed your initial assessment?

Chief Burke: When we arrived on scene, we could not locate the vehicle initially. We could hear a horn going off in the distance, so we knew we were in the right location. With the assistance of the police department, members on scene were able to locate the vehicle after a brief search of the area. The vehicle, a standard passenger car, had traveled approximately 60 feet down the embankment and rolled onto its roof partially submerged in a creek.152401001_3857615917638888_2496111312438141438_n

Lt. Kauer: Chief Burke was already on scene when I arrived and had made his way down to the vehicle to begin assessing the situation. I remained topside to direct incoming personnel and provide any support needed below.

Can you describe what developed as you assessed the scene further?

Chief Burke: The police officers and I started making our way closer to the vehicle, there was approximately 16-18 inches of snow that had accumulated on the slope impeding our travel. When we got to the vehicle’s location, we found there was a 6–8-foot sheer rock face at the bottom of the slope. The two police officers slid down the face to the vehicle, I remained at the top of the face and started relaying information to Lt. Kauer and advised him that technical rescue would be needed to get the occupants topside.

Lt. Kauer: When the Chief contacted me over the radio and advised technical rescue would be required, I started to assess the surrounding area and planning where a safe work zone could be established and identifying any hazards that could complicate our rescue efforts. One of the biggest concerns I had was the amount of manpower that would be needed, and determining how many department personnel would be responding. Being a volunteer department, and given the time of day the incident occurred, it was not a guarantee that we would have sufficient manpower available to execute the rescue in a timely manner. I was hesitant to ask the Chief to request assistance from surrounding departments and deplete their manpower unnecessarily; they face the same issues we do as volunteers. Knowing that rescue efforts would require the use of technical rescue skills, I was also working to set up the rope systems that would be necessary for getting the patient to the roadway.

What strategy was used to successfully complete the rescue? What developed during the process?

Chief Burke: PD made initial contact with the single occupant in the vehicle, and I remained on top of the rock face to coordinate operation with personnel at the top of the slope. We were fortunate that the patient did not appear to be severely entrapped or injured. The officers were able to breach the passenger door window and remove the occupant who had suffered bruising and several lacerations. The patient was initially non-ambulatory but was able to gain mobility as the assessment continued. We still had two significant obstacles in front of us, the 60-foot snow-covered slope and the 8-foot sheer rock face which would have to be traversed during the rescue. I contacted Lt. Kauer and advised of developments, I called for a stokes basket to package and transport the patient up the slope while the team located on top of the slope continued to prepare for the rescue.


Lt. Kauer: When the Chief updated me on the situation below, I started to formulate a more definitive rescue plan. Our manpower levels on scene were sufficient, which was a major relief. However, our department does not have a dedicated technical rescue team. The arriving personnel were not trained in technical rope rescue and would be limited in the skills they could provide. Being the only rescue technician on scene, I started to give our personnel basic tasks to assist in setting up the rope system we would utilize when bringing the patient up the slope. Being that we were on a roadway, we would need to use the apparatus as our anchoring point. Having personnel inexperienced in rope rescue on scene meant that on-the-fly training would be necessary to successfully complete the rescue in a timely manner. The training covered basic anchoring and rigging principles, construction of the rope system that we would be using for the haul, and team positions once we were ready to initiate the retrieval.

Once the system was in place, and personnel were confident in their assignments, we sent personnel to assist with transporting the patient up the slope.

Chief Burke: I continued to work with PD in developing a plan to bring the patient up the sheer face to the base of the slope. Even though the face was only 8 feet, it was a very steep ascent. Given the conditions, that would make traversing it difficult – even with the assistance of a rope system. This would require us to bring not only the patient, but also the two police officers up the face as well. This would add significant time to the rescue and delay getting the patient up to the road surface. Thankfully, we were able to locate an area about 15 feet downstream that had a significantly flatter slope. The now ambulatory patient was able to move to the bottom of the slope with the assistance of PD. Once the patient had made it to this point, I instructed our members who had arrived with the stokes basket to start packaging the patient and prepare for travel up the slope.

Lt. Kauer: Once the patient was secured, and our personnel were in position, we utilized our hauling system to assist in moving the patient up the slope. Due to the hazardous conditions created by inclement weather, the system not only provided assistance in bringing the patient to the road surface, but it also provided the rescue team members a means of safety as they maneuvered the difficult terrain. 153149510_3857616194305527_3328504075929478694_nContinuous communication was critical in completing the rescue. We were able to get the patient to the top of the slope and transferred to medical personnel for transport.

What unexpected challenges did you face during the rescue?

Chief Burke: For me, the combination of poor weather conditions, snow already built up on the slope, and a sheer face of rock creating an obstacle really compounded the situation. Had we not been able to locate an area with a flatter face, it would have increased the difficulty of the rescue exponentially.

Lt. Kauer: Deteriorating weather conditions during the operation really created some problems. Also, we were operating on an active roadway during the initial stages of the rescue. With road conditions as they were, there was a major safety concern. Until PD was able to get the roadway shut down, we were working with an abundance of caution. Not being able to fully focus on the rescue tasks due to safety concerns can impact your time on scene significantly.

What are some lessons learned your department took away from the rescue?

Chief Burke: We were fortunate to have Lt. Kauer, who is a Roco Chief Instructor, on scene to direct rescue operations at the top of the slope. It would have been very beneficial to have additional resources trained in rope rescue on an initial alarm automatic response. It would have allowed us to have a fully trained rescue team available in a more timely manner. If Lt. Kauer had not been on scene, our own fire personnel would not have been able to perform the rescue as effectively and efficiently as we did.

Lt. Kauer: Know your district and any areas that can present scenarios that are out of the ordinary. Preplan any areas you identify and know how to be prepared for them. Have your team members familiar with basic anchoring and mechanical advantage principles. These types of low-angle rescues do not require a vast amount of skill or equipment to be successful. Practice the basics and make sure your team members are proficient in these skills.

What should other departments take into consideration to ensure they are prepared for these types of events?

Chief Burke: Evaluate your capabilities as a department, look at all the possible scenarios where you may be needed and be honest with yourself. You must ask, “are we able to do what is required if the time comes” In our case, it would be extremely difficult to have multiple members trained as rope rescue technicians. Having mutual aid on auto-response with departments who have these resources readily available is essential.

Lt. Kauer: Never think that these things will not happen in your district. Departments are continuously called to perform outside of standard fire-related duties. Not everyone has to be a technician when you look at rope rescue or other technical disciplines needed for response. Train with your department on the basics, have department members work on simple core skills and develop a good base for technical rescue.

Low-Angle Rope Rescue

Friday, March 26, 2021

During a recent snow storm in Highland Mills, New York, the Woodbury Fire Department performed a rope rescue for a driver whose car flipped over the guardrail. The wreck occurred on Route 293, with the car tumbling down a 50 to 60 foot embankment and landing upside down in a stream.

Woodbury Fire Department Rope RescueIncredibly the motorist sustained only minor injuries, and rescuers used low-angle rescue techniques.

Trench Deaths = Manslaughter?

Monday, March 8, 2021

In a grim reminder about the dangers of trench and excavation work, this article from Safety+Health Magazine also serves as a warning to employers. “The court’s decision sends a message to business owners that they can be held criminally accountable and face felony charges if they knowingly fail to protect their workers.”

The owner of Alki Construction LLC has been charged with second-degree manslaughter after an employee was buried while replacing a residential sewer pipe in a trench that had inadequate shoring and was missing a ladder.

Remember to ensure that you have a properly trained Trench Competent Person on site, and check out OSHA's Trenching and Excavation Safety Fact Sheet as a reminder when scheduling trench work.


9/11 @ The Pentagon: A Creative Solution to the Structural Collapse Hazard

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

We were at a standstill, and if we couldn’t come up with a solution to shore up that part of the structure,” Tim Robson recalls, “we’d be sending our people into a much riskier situation. In fact, some areas were so dangerous, we had to start thinking about things like, “Who’s not married?” and “Who doesn’t have kids?” It was awful, but it was something we had to think about.”     

911 Never Forget

On September 12, 2001, Tim Robson was sent to the Pentagon with his FEMA Urban Search and Rescue New Mexico Task Force 1 team. Their objectives were to search for survivors, recover victims, structurally stabilize the damaged area of the building, and locate several safes containing classified documents. Because the site was a crime scene, they also had to document and preserve key pieces of information for the FBI 

Tim’s team began their work in the rubble on the edges of the impact zone, but they quickly reached the area where the building hadn’t completely collapsed. It was inside the building where there was the highest probability of finding survivors, but it was also too dangerous to send rescuers into these overhead environments before stabilizing the structure. The building had already suffered pancake and lean-to collapses in the hours after initial impact. Extreme heat from the explosion and burning jet fuel weakened the building’s support columns. This created an extraordinarily hazardous environment for the search and rescue teams.  

“The left side of the impact zone, on the outermost ring of the Pentagon – part of that wall was actually moving,” Tim recalls. “The loads were so great any movement was very hazardous. It was definitely stressful. But we were extremely task-oriented and we wanted to get the job done and get out of there.” 

The textbook approach to stabilizing a heavy building with extensive structural damage like this was to stack 6x6 timbers in a box around each damaged column. “It’s just like stacking Lincoln Logs,” explains Tim. This provides a very strong and stable support structure in case the column fails.  

However, it only works if there’s something substantial overhead for the stacked timbers to support, and in the case of several weakened columns on the outer edge of the building, the ceiling didn’t exist all the way around the columns.  

The team put their heads together to come up with alternative solutions and workarounds, but nobody was very comfortable with any of the ideas floated. Tim knew that the stacked timbers approach derived its strength from the joints at the corners where the timbers overlapped. With that principle in mind, Tim came up with the idea to connect two boxes of stacked timbers together by using longer timbers on one edge of each box and overlapping those longer timbers.  

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“I stacked some pencils together to show what I was thinking,” Tim says, “and the engineers did some quick math and said, ‘Heck yeah, let’s run with this.’ It was not something anyone on the team had ever seen before, but when we all thought about the support it would provide, it just made sense.”    

This improvised solution greatly reduced the risk of the building collapsing while rescuers were inside, and the team was able to get on with their very difficult search and recovery tasks.  

There are several takeaways here. Let’s never forget the courage of our search and rescue team members in the aftermath of September 11th - they willingly ventured into hazardous territory and subjected themselves to the possibility of a follow-on terrorist attack, airborne toxins, and exposure to mass carnage. For this, they have our eternal gratitude and respect.  

L Crib FrontThe learning takeaway for rescuers is to deepen your knowledge. Because no two rescue situations are exactly alike, a rescuer who understands the principles (the “why”) will be much more effective than one who just memorizes procedures (the “how”). In a dynamic situation, the “textbook approach” may not offer a solution, so understanding the key principles allows you to adapt what you know to the specific situation. Creative solutions exist everywhere. This is a great example of how a thorough understanding of the principles spawned a creative solution to a difficult problem.  

After the mission was over, Tim’s creative technique became part of the operational procedures for FEMA’s search and rescue teams going forward. And ultimately, nobody was haunted by the decisions that were made about who to send into the building to do the work. Special thanks to Tim Robson and to everyone who took risks and made sacrifices to help others after September 11.  

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Tim Robson is a chief instructor and the New Mexico CSRT Director for Roco Rescue, Inc. As a chief instructor, he teaches a wide variety of technical rescue classes and has been instrumental in the development of our Trench & Structural Collapse Rescue programs. In his role as a CSRT Director, he leads our on-site rescue and safety services, which includes standby rescue, confined space program management, leading safety meetings and more. Prior to joining Roco in 1996, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Rescue Diver/Swimmer, at the Albuquerque Fire Department, and as a Rescue Squad Officer for FEMA’s New Mexico Task Force 1.

Tunnel Rescue in Charleston

Monday, July 15, 2019

By Skip Williams

Contributors: Deputy Chief Kenneth Jenkins, Captain Tom Horn and Captain Anthony Morley, Charleston Fire Department, Rescue 115, and Russ Fennema, Jay Dee Contractors

Note: The following article recounts a very successful rescue that took advantage of available resources at the scene. Roco Rescue wants to share stories like this one to remind our readers that lessons learned can be gleaned from successful rescues just as they can from rescues that didn’t go so well. The important point is to take the time to perform a debriefing as soon as possible after the rescue effort. This is the time to capture the thoughts and comments from the team members while it is still fresh in their memories. Any important lessons learned need to be captured through documentation and then SHARED. The learnings can become part of your SOP/SOI or they can become integrated into your formal training. 

The other point that this article makes is to know and understand your equipment. We regularly train with our ropes and hardware, and we all tend to learn the operating limits and capabilities of said equipment. However, we need to be just as familiar with our peripheral equipment such as atmospheric monitors, radios, and etcetera. Consider spending some of your team training time learning more about that equipment and how to properly use it and what its idiosyncrasies may be. All the equipment we use should be considered life support equipment, and the word “life” should grab your attention and motivate you to know all you can about it. 

In March 2019, Rescue 115 of the Charleston Fire Department was dispatched at 09:02 hours to “man down” at an address on Shepard Street some 5 1/2 blocks NW of station 15 on Coming Street. En route, Captain Tom Horn realized the address was familiar as the entrance to the Coming Street retrieval shaft of the Charleston tunnel project (Figure 1). Now they were 2 blocks from the scene and he immediately called for Ladder 4 also from station 15, and nearby Engine 6 and Battalion 3 from nearby station 6. R115 arrived at 09:06 hours.

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The Coming Street retrieval shaft is a vertical shaft 168 feet down and 20 feet in diameter to a 15-foot diameter tunnel being bored for flood control (Figure 2). Just as R115 arrived at the scene, the 12-man cage had been weight tested and prepared for lowering by crane. As R115’s four-man crew was about to be lowered into the shaft, Captain Horn eyed Captain of Ladder 4 and transferred command to him.

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Just as R115’s crew got to the bottom, the patient arrived at their location from three quarters of a mile in the tunnel on a horizontal flat car driven by a battery-powered locomotive (Figure 3).

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Captain Horn called for the lowering of the backboard and Stokes basket. The topside crew decided to use the crane again rather than lower with ropes. The county EMS was not included as joint training is not done. Back down at the tunnel, the patient was secured, placed in the  12-man cage, along with R115 members and 2 construction workers. The patient at the top of the shaft was treated by county EMS and was off to the hospital at 09:40 just 38 minutes from the initial call.

There are always lessons learned at any rescue. From prior experience, a member was assigned to the crane operator to ensure that the crane was moved under Fire Department control. The Fire Department used the construction company’s gas detectors because they knew that the detectors were calibrated daily. In retrospect, the Fire Department would use its own gas detectors. Also, the backboard and Stokes basket should have gone down on the first lowering to the tunnel.

The usage of gas monitors had been delayed because of differences in calibration between the fire department monitor and a plant monitor. There is no one gas that is best for calibration of fire department gas detectors because many different exposures are encountered. For a particular industrial site, the explosive gases are most likely known. 

Figure shows that the Lower Explosive Limit (LEL) varies according to which hydrocarbon is present. Figure shows correction factors if the monitor is calibrated with one gas and exposed to another. The Fire Department meter was calibrated with methane so that 0.5% by volume of methane reads 10% of LEL. A meter calibrated with pentane has a correction factor of 2 for methane. So, if a meter calibrated with pentane reads 10% LEL in pentane, the meter would read 5% LEL in methane. lf anything, the gas in the tunnel would be methane, but in actuality, the meters read zero no matter what calibration gas was used. 

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Screen Shot 2019-07-11 at 1.56.08 PMThe reason pentane is sometimes used for calibration is that it overestimates the actual LEL. The caveat is that if the meter is poisoned for methane, a methane bump test is indicated. A sensor can be poisoned by chemicals like silicone.  Note well, silicone is a component of Armor All which should not be exposed to a LEL meter on a fire truck. The lesson learned here is to understand the effect of different gases on a sensor and a Fire Department may encounter many different gases.

Author Bio:

Skip Williams was a volunteer firefighter for 20 years. His last position was captain of the high-angle rescue team and emergency medical technician. He has a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech and M.S. and Ph.D. from Rutgers University and has held teaching positions at Rutgers University and the Medical College of Georgia. He designed and patented an artificial heart assist device. He is a Registered Professional Engineer in New Jersey and is a practicing engineer with Condition Analyzing Corporation engaged in condition monitoring of ships. 

Note: Captain Tom Horn is a graduate of two Roco Rescue courses.

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