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High-angle rescue: How to execute mid-height pick off

Pick offs require a lot of repetition and are a high-risk rigging event; these steps and video will help you train for these rescues


In light of the recent rescue that FDNY performed, I thought it would be a great opportunity to discuss some of the techniques available when confronted with these types of scenarios. There are some universal concepts that apply to both natural and man-made environments. 

There are many reasons a victim is trapped at mid height: gear malfunctions or failures, injuries resulting from falling debris, medical emergencies, etc. The first series of variables is what is supporting the victim's load. There are two basic variables.

First, the victim is rigged or supported by a dynamic system (meaning it can move). This can simply be a rope or ropes as in the case of a climber, person rappelling, or a would-be rescuer. 

It also can be an industrial application such as window washers or maintenance personnel on a cable-and-winch system or a ladder-based climbing system. In all of these examples, the assumption is that the system supporting these victims is under tension and carrying their load. 

Second, the victim is supported by something static (meaning it is a fixed object or support system). This can simply be a ledge or window opening. It also can be a working platform upon which he may be safety rigged but do not have tension on his personal rigging. 

In these examples, the assumption is that these victims are captured through gravity but are somewhat free to move minimally and their position at height is not under loaded tension.

First steps
As we approach these scenarios we must assess the condition of the victim and the cause of the predicament. As we gather information regarding the cause, we will learn whether or not we can use the existing system or develop a new one.

This can radically shape the action plan.

If the victim is suspended by a cable-and-winch system that is safety compliant and intact and the victim is having a medical emergency, then using the existing system (provided rescuers can operate it) may provide the most effective solution.

However, if the victim was rappelling and suffered a gear failure, we will have to develop a complete high-angle system to accomplish the rescue.

If the victim is suspended on a loaded or tension system, we will have to bring gear that will allow us to transfer the victim from his system onto the rescue system.

As we refine our action plan and draw conclusions from these assessments, there is one final challenge to consider. What is the best approach for access and rescue.

Reaching the victim
In these events, we may have crews above the victim, at the victim, and or below the victim. All of these options will shape the systems we select and how we deploy them.

A victim who is on a ledge in a cave, ravine or gorge will most likely require a hauling system to bring the victim up. This will require a lower haul system with a high directional.

It may also require bottom side crews to develop a tensioning track line or tensioned track line depending on the placement and height of the directional as well as the terrain features.

A victim who is trapped on the side of a water tower or hydropillar may only require topside anchoring and a rescuer who descends to the victim, packages, and then descends to ground.

A victim trapped at height that can be directly or proximally reached through a nearby window or platform may only require top-side safety systems to be rigged so the victim can be safely moved from the compromised position to an accessible position. The recent FDNY rescue was a good example of this application.

As always, the objective is to make the right choices to achieve the most optimal outcome for the victim and the rescuers. Do not over-rescue. With that said, here are the tangible points of rigging to perform a pick off of a stranded mid-height victim.

Load transfer
This is when the victim is suspended on loaded rope or cable. Establish a belay line and moving brake line. Some organizations may elect to establish a fixed brake line in which the rescuer is lowered, but I have found that this application requires very finite communications and often results in miscues between the rescuer and the lowering team. 

Conversely, the moving brake requires an experienced rescuer who is adept at rappelling and rigging. This should be the case, though, because pick offs are a level II skill. 

Pre-rig the belay line for victim attachment. Put a knot, typically a figure eight on a bite, into the end of the belay line and attach it to the accessory loop on the rescuers harness with a screw link. This knot will be attached to the victim when the rescuer gains access to him. 

I prefer the link to a carabineer because it can easily get side loaded during the pick off process and insures a higher safety factor. I avoid tying a knot into the victim's harness because it can be time consuming compared with attaching a link or similar connecting hardware. 

Once the knot is established, measure approximately one arm's length and tie a midline knot; butterfly is acceptable here. This midline knot is the attachment point for the rescuer.

Pick-off straps
Rig in a pick-off strap or self-minding short-haul system. Attach this element to the eye of the rescuer's brake bar rack or other descent control device. It is important that this device eventually carry the load of the victim directly to the main line and not to the rescuer. 

Pick-off straps have a U and a V attachment. The U goes to the rescuer's rack or lowering line knot and the V gets attached to the victim. It is a good practice to make these attachments with screw links for the reasons previously mentioned.

Self-minding short-haul systems are typically 4-1 or 5-1 ratio systems with capturing cams or progress capture devices that self set. These systems will provide the rescuer with an added capability to haul the victim up a short distance.

Some of these systems come in small packs and can be carried down by the rescuer and deployed when needed. Pre-attaching will help speed up the rescue and may reduce potential rigging errors.

At the victim
Rappel or descend down to the victim. Stop descending and lock off when the rescuers hips are at the same height as the victim's head. This positioning is crucial to ensure that the transferring devices have appropriate spacing to be reached and operated. 

Attach the belay line to the victim and the pick-off strap or short-haul system. I find that inverting at this point can greatly increase the efficiency of the rescuer. Inverting allows the rescuer to maximize her reach and use both hands. 

Haul the victim up or pull tension on the pick-off strap until the load has transferred from the victim's line to the implement you have applied. When using a pick-off strap, the load usually cannot fully transfer because not enough force can be generated by simply pulling the strap. 

This requires the victim's loaded descent-control device to be operated in a controlled manner until slack is developed. This is where short-haul systems will pay dividends. When the transfer is complete, disconnect any remaining unnecessary victim lines to reduce entanglements.

The victim should be oriented just below the rescuer and the pick-off strap or the short-haul system should be between the rescuers legs. If working on a wall, coach the victim to keep his arms crossed around his rigging so that he doesn't grab the rescuer's legs. 

When the rescuer's legs are grabbed, they lose foot contact with the wall both parties end up riding the wall. If not working on a wall, rescuers may direct the victim to grab their extended legs to prevent rotating or spinning independently of one another. 

When preparing to descend or rappel to the ground, remember that an extra load has been picked up and the previous level of friction on the descent-control device will not be appropriate. 

No load transfer
When the victim is static and not attached to tensioned lines, all of the steps are the same with the exception of transferring lines. This means we simply access the victim, attach the belay and pick-off strap, pull out slack and ease off the static platform. 

This is a much more simplistic pick off, but often requires more packaging. These victims often do not have harnesses and require rescuers to put one on them. These victims also may be significantly injured.

This will require basket packaging and a lowering system on the top side with the rescuer transition to a tender. We will save that for another column.

Pick offs require a lot of repetition and are a high-risk rigging event. Watch the video to help drive the material home and then get out there and do it.

Remember you can statically go through the rigging progressions out in the bay so rep it out and be ready. Train hard.

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