My call of a lifetime: The cliffside sheep rescue

I was thinking most animals can self extricate from situations they get themselves into – when we arrived on scene, I could see I was wrong

By Marc Lucero
Richmond, Calif., Fire Department

On February 1, I was working as the Engine Co. Captain for just a few hours while the regular Captain was attending to some departmental business when we received a call at the Point Richmond firehouse from the Contra Costa County Animal Control.

They requested assistance with removing two animals (one dog and one sheep) from the side of a cliff in an old rock quarry.

After a brief discussion with the officer on the phone, it sounded to me like something that might require our service. I said we'd respond Code 2 and see what they had.

I was thinking most animals can self extricate from situations they get themselves into.

Once on scene with the animal control officers, they pointed to the area of the cliff the animals were stuck on — they were so high up that I couldn’t see them at first. I couldn't believe it!

It only took me a few seconds to determine this was going to be the real deal. These two were actually stuck; we were going to have to go and rescue a sheep and a dog from the side of the cliff.

They were stuck on an almost vertical portion of the cliff about 200 feet up from the bottom and 150 feet from the top.

My first thought was, "The Battalion Chief is never going to let me pull this off." So, I grabbed the radio and made a request for Battalion 64 to respond to the scene. I wanted the Chief to see this before I put this operation into play.

Challenges we faced
Our department’s capabilities involving technical rope work was very limited at the time. Only I and a few others had with had actual experience and extensive training in this discipline within the department.

One of those happened to be on duty and was working the Battalion that day, Chief Merlin Turner. Chief Turner had actually been involved in part of my initial rescue training some 20 years ago when I was involved in creating a rescue team for the City of Chico Fire Department.

Chief Turner had come up to Chico and gone through some of the technical rope classes we had put on. He was familiar with the difficulty we faced in Chico and what type of rescues I was involved in prior to coming to the Richmond Fire Department.

This history played a big role in the day's operations because when I approached the Chief with the situation, I knew he understood my knowledge and capabilities and I also what I was asking him to allow me to attempt.

My priority concern was whether we could do it safely! The risk vs. gain was enormous. It wouldn’t be worth putting anyone at risk of injury if I had any doubt that we weren’t capable. Ultimately, it was Chief Turner decision to say yes or no.

How best to manage
Once given a green light, my thoughts changed to how to best manage this operation from the rescue group leader position. Where do you place your people within the operation?

Those with experience have to be placed in key roles, yet rescuing an animal is much different than rescuing a human — there is an element of unpredictability with the animal

Running the operation on the top side of the cliff requires someone with confidence and knowledge as well. I knew I couldn’t be in both places and I knew the Chief had his role already, so this was one of my toughest challenges.

One of the conditions we were extremely lucky to have in this situation was to have access to both the top and the bottom of the cliff.

This made my decision to go with simple lowering systems for both animals an easy one. One of the Captains on duty that day who was working at one of the Rescue Companies had some good training under her belt, and I knew I could use her in one of these important roles.

Captain Elizabeth De Dios was given the top side of the operation to run and after some initial discussion between the two of us, I was confident she would handle everything well.

This gave me the freedom to rappel down to the animals' location and manage things from there. The plan was to send one rescuer down at a time, harness the animal and continue the descent to the bottom where the animal control officers would be waiting.

Manage the middle
From this position, I would be able to manage the middle of the operation, making sure the rescuer and animal were both packaged correctly and safely, and then send them on their way to the bottom.

The last thing I wanted was to harness the animals incorrectly and have a knot slip and strangle or hurt one of them if they were to panic or try to get free once we had them harnessed.

This rescue worked out well and gave department members some very valuable experience..

There were several curve balls that were thrown at us during the operation, which could have been disastrous.

Both animal owners attempted to climb down the cliff to rescue them on their own. From the top, I could not see this but Chief Turner had some deep concerns.

We had one person actually take a small fall, and it was only then that Chief Turner was able to talk him off the cliff.

We also had the pressure of several news helicopters taking this live on the news, which added to the pressure of not making a mistake. The last thing you want when you see that you're being watched by live news copters is to have our personnel hurt or having an animal come down the way we did not want.

In retrospect, this call will go into my memory as one of those "calls of a lifetime" that I would have never imagined would happen in a city filled with so much industry and very little need for technical cliff work.

It will remain with me with a sense of pride as a job everyone did very well and I am grateful for Chief Turner giving his vote of confidence and allowing us to pull off the rescue. 

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