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Lessons from a rope-rescue gone wrong

Practicing the same thing over and over is great until something unexpected comes along

In the past month, the organization where I work has had three in-depth rope rescue events. They all took place in a natural environment with waterfalls, rock features, cliffs and 50- to 100-foot gorges.

It is an understatement to say that we thoroughly plan this environment and conduct regular dynamic training on site. We have a handful of calls in this area every year that involve patrons falling from the cliffs or getting injured while jumping from the falls.

It is pristinely groomed and equipped with lookout decks and gazebos. We have every lookout labeled with signs for emergency contact information and position designations so that we can quickly locate victims.

This year, however, the site had a massive influx of visitors. All of them come with one thing in mind, jumping off of the falls into the lagoon. On any given day, we had up to 50 people on the falls.

The problem is that water levels vary dramatically with rainfall — what was a deep lagoon one day turns into a shallow, boulder filled puddle the next day. This results in a myriad of traumas ranging from minor to major, but all of them requiring high-angle extraction.

Our crews became highly proficient at going to our designated extraction points, accessing the victim, using the designated anchors and building rescue systems.

Unexpected change

What happened this season threw everything into limbo. We quickly realized we had crews that were regurgitating what they had learned and performed over and over again, but they were not riggers.

This was all triggered by one simple variable — a dead tree.

One of the challenges of a natural environment with cliff edges is securing a high directional anchor. Getting a packaged victim up over an edge is extremely challenging and high-risk without elevating the lines with some form of elevated anchor.

We had used a large-diameter branch jutting out of a massive tree right on the cliff edge for decades. The branch was accessible, relatively easy to rig, and in a perfect position for just about any system we elected to build.

On the first rope event this season, one of our leading rescue technicians identified that the branch appeared to be dead or dying. This discovery was made during the event and the branch was used anyway.

A lot of thought that went into that decision and it was the right one. The load was light in that the victim was untended, and the angles into the high directional anchor were minimal load angles with simplistic systems.

Additional safety measures were taken and the rescue was pulled off without a hitch. The total time for the event from time of call to having the victim topside was approximately 30 minutes. Job well done.

Caught off guard

In the aftermath, an arborist was consulted and the rescue gurus had discussions. The decision was made to exercise caution in using that branch and to identify new approaches and alternative anchors.

The entire organization was apprised of the state of the branch. This might have played out well, but the timeline to do all of this wasn’t compressed enough and another event occurred the next week.

My palm was firmly on the panic button.

On this run, crews arrived and were immediately in disarray because of the conversations and memos they had been privy to regarding the branch. The crews declared the branch off limits.

This was a great decision because the technical rescue personnel initially on scene were not the organizational experts, but strong rope practitioners. The resulting decisions, though, cascaded into a disorganized mess where multiple systems were built unbeknownst to the multiple crews with two totally different tactics.

Ultimately, a modified low-angle system was developed that was not in the realm of an acceptable system and the victim was walked out. The total time on this event from time of call to victim topside was well over an hour.

Two lessons

We all have that day or those days where something smacks us that we aren’t prepared for and we muscle through it in a manner far less proficient than we’d like.

So organizationally we took a broad look at the stark contrast between these two events that were almost identical scenarios with completely different outcomes. I came away from it with two glaring nuggets.

First, we were doing a poor job in developing riggers. Rescue professionals who have a deep understanding of the systems, techniques and tactics for rescue and can apply their knowledge abilities to any problem with safe and efficient solutions.

Second, we didn’t have our skilled personnel in the right positions. On this day, we were short staffed on rescue personnel and our primary rescue specialist was assigned to an outlying station to run an engine instead of the heavy rescue in the primary district.

I am a firm believer in fixing what is in your control and letting go of what is not. I am not high enough up on the food chain to apply a sweeping change to our staffing matrix.

So, the focus has to be on training and preparation. We started by developing a division-wide emergency training plan to get all personnel up to speed on alternative tactics.

Our key rescue personnel were all very well versed in these approaches, but we had failed in preparing our peers. All other training was delayed and rescheduled until we accomplished our three objectives.

Objective one

Develop a new comprehensive approach that was simple enough for our organizational capabilities while maintaining safety and efficiency. Thirty minutes is always our maximum time benchmark.

Unfortunately, the solution we identified was a descending track line system. Our key rescue personnel are highly capable of pulling off a rescue with this system, but our key personnel are spread out amongst three shifts. For this system to be fast and safe, it would require all responding personnel to play an active role.

Objective two

Train all personnel in the new approach. This went very well with some crews and was very challenging with others.

This is where we quickly realized that our organization was not thinking like proficient rescuers; they had become robotic in simply memorizing all of the facets of one plan and duplicating it. We had to break things all the way down to fundamentals like anchoring and critical angles and work our way up.

Objective three

Conduct scenarios to evaluate the plan. We wanted to ensure that we didn’t overestimate our capabilities and that the plan wasn’t too elaborate or complex to pull off.

To accomplish these, we trained extensively for about two weeks. We had compressed our operational time to about 30 minutes and felt like the crews understood all of the variables including adding track lines for increasing loads and angles.

We refined our deployment plan and the use of personnel. We stressed the importance of putting the right people in the right places regardless of rank. We also learned that our skilled leaders needed to do a better job of directing and managing the event.

Strong practitioners often get tasked with a job and develop tunnel vision, which takes them out of the problem solving equation for the event. In the end, we felt relatively confident, but definitely wanted cres to do more repetitions.

You know the saying about plans.

Put to the test

When the third event toned out, we had a lot of the pieces of the puzzle ready. The victim had jumped off the falls and landed on a large rock, significantly injuring her lower leg.

Initial crews immediately gained access to her, packaged her and relocated her down river approximately 50 yards to the extraction point. On the topside, crews worked efficiently to develop a tensioned safety edge line, belay, track line, high directional anchor and lower haul system.

Edge tenders were in place and a pre-constructed system was lowered to the bottom. The initial bottom-side rescue team received the pre-built system and created a bottom-side, high-strength tie off for the track line.

A tend line was attached to the Stokes basket and managed from the bottom side and the topside hauled up the victim. The total time for the event was just over our 30-minute objective.

All in all, it was a success. We debriefed and identified areas for improvement and trained extensively for another few weeks until we were consistently carrying out the rescue plan with multiple variables in less than 30 minutes.

From this experience, we learned two basic lessons.

First, actively training at a high level does not ensure success. Mix it up. If you’re doing something the same way over and over again, you are not preparing your knowledge, skills and abilities for the boomerangs that may pop up.

This really hit home while watching the Olympics when they discussed how Michael Phelps’ trainer use to smash his goggles right before he swam and throw other things at him to disrupt his routine and mental focus. When his swim cap snapped right before his leg of the relay, he didn’t miss a beat. He quickly grabbed a teammate’s cap, focused and swam a record-setting leg.

Second, it is important to succession plan. Don’t let your leaders get better and better without ensuring that their subordinates are improving.

The team must evolve together so that everyone is a problem solver and a thinker. Don’t regurgitate, rig. Be safe and train hard.

This article, originally published Aug. 31, 2016, has been updated

Dalan Zartman is a 20-year career veteran of the fire service and president and founder of Rescue Methods, LLC. He is assigned to a heavy rescue and is an active leader as a member of both local and national tech rescue response teams. Zartman has delivered fire and technical rescue training courses and services around the globe for more than 15 years. He is also an international leader in fire-based research, testing, training and consulting related to energy storage, and serves as the COO at the Energy Security Agency. Zartman serves as regional training program director and advisory board member for the Bowling Green State University State Fire School. He is a certified rescue instructor, technical rescue specialist, public safety diver, fire instructor II, firefighter II, and EMTP.