Many fire departments today are compelled to offer rope rescue capabilities to the communities they serve. This is a challenging task for any department. Staying current with techniques and technology, developing and maintaining proficiency as a team and individuals, and budgeting for the cost associated with high performance, pose significant obstacles to overcome. If you find yourself struggling with developing these capabilities, a great starting point can be low angle rescue systems.
This also makes sense for many organizations based on risk and frequency of events. High angle emergencies are defined as those that present angle requirements of 60 degrees or steeper. The Carolinas are loaded with ravines, valleys, culverts and other natural terrain features that are more gradual angles than 60 degrees. These terrain features also accompany roadways, recreational areas and water bodies. This means that they fall higher on the frequency matrix simply because they are highly accessible to the public. Focusing on this application of rope rescue allows groups to make more modest investments in training and resources and develop knowledge, skills, and abilities that will serve as building blocks for more advanced high angle applications down the road.
Every department should be prepared to handle low angle incidents because of their commonality in every municipality. These can be vehicle accidents in which a car is over a gradual embankment, or a mountain biker who slid off the trail down into a ravine. In all of these events, we have to move quickly and safely as rescuers from the top side to the bottom side, package the victim, and then safely and effectively extricate them to the top side. Too many times, these incidents are accomplished without any rope systems in place. A lack of safety mechanisms for the rescuers and the victim place everyone in harm’s way and could be easily prevented with minimal gear and some basic training and practice.
This is an example of a universal system for low angle rescue sequences and includes basic equipment recommendations. There are many ways to develop these systems and this is just one example.
Let’s first describe a scenario. You arrive on scene of a vehicle accident in which a single passenger car drove through a guard rail and descended down a low angle hillside approximately 100 feet. As you visualize the wreckage from the roadway, you can identify one female victim lying on the ground approximately six feet from the vehicle with the driver’s door open. The vehicle sustained heavy damage and it appears that all of the airbags deployed. You call out to the victim and she responds verbally and moves spontaneously. She states that she thinks her left arm and hip may be broken. She says she was restrained and did not lose consciousness.
Now it’s decision planning time. As you analyze the hillside, it is slick and muddy and has large rocks as well as exposed tree roots. It is steep enough, deep enough, and obstacle ridden so simply deploying rescuers down the hillside would be high risk and the victim is not immediately critical.
This is a strong example of when to deploy an appropriate low angle rope rescue system. Now we can define an action plan and implement it.
Safely Deploy Four Rescuers to the Victim
Deploy three rope legs to the bottom. This can be done by splitting a 200-foot rope with a midline knot and then deploying an additional 100-foot rope down the middle. Envision two stair rails of rope with a tracking rope running down the middle. A fire apparatus, properly placed, can provide all of the anchor points you need. Remember to only attach the rope to structural elements on the apparatus that will withstand the load you may apply. The two “stair rail” ropes are just fixed lines that are tied into anchors on the apparatus or connected to anchor straps or slings with carabiners. These two ropes should be spaced apart approximately six feet for optimal operations but can be closer together when anchors are limited. The middle rope should be rigged into a multi-purpose device that can perform lowering and hauling operations such as an MPD (Multi-Purpose Device), ID (Industrial Descender), clutch, or Maestro. Once these lines are in place, you can rapidly deploy two rescuers at a time on each of the “stair rail” lines with acceptable rappelling style devices or hitches.
Because this is low angle, these rescuers do not require the normal equipment and attachment points that would be required for high angle scenarios such as two points of contact and belays. Rescuers can use munter hitches with carabiners or rescue eights for rapid deployment, but should be aware of the lack of compliance with “whistle test.” This implies that if a rescuer let go of the rope while rigged into the device, they would continue to descend. If there are any segments in the rescuers path where this type of action would result in significant injury, then the decision should be made to upgrade to a more suitable device such as an ID or clutch. While the first two rescuers are deploying down to the victim, a litter should be attached the middle line and “lowered” from the top side. Because this is not a sheer cliff, the rescuers will have to drag the device down and the “lowering” connection is in place to control the descent of the litter. The rescuers can effectively help this lowering and dragging process by connecting a length of cordage or webbing to the foot of the basket from the rigging point on their harness. As they walk down the hill, they will bring the basket down just above themselves.
Package the Victim
Rapidly assess the victim, make sure the second pair of rescuers are bringing down adequate EMS supplies and initiate appropriate care. Place the victim in the litter and properly secure them with acceptable packaging techniques and equipment. Many modern litters can be purchased with preassembled victim harness and lashing systems. This will greatly improve packaging time and reduce human errors on the part of rescuers.
Extricate the Victim and Rescuers Back to the Top Side
We are now ready to ascend as a team with the victim. Handled ascenders are essential to moving efficiently and safely as a team. The rescuers should assemble on both sides of the litter with two rescuers at the head of the litter and two rescuers at the foot of the litter. The two “stair rail” ropes should be secured to bottom side anchors so that the lines are relatively taught. If the lines cannot be secured to any anchors, leave one rescuer at the bottom to physically hold tension on both lines. The rescuers on the left side of the litter should apply left handled ascenders to the stair rail rope which they should be positioned inside of. The ascenders should be connected to webbing or prussiks that are about the length of their arm. The webbing or prussik should be girth hitched or connected with a carabiner into the rigging point on their harness. The mirror image of this should be completed by the rescuers on the right side of the litter.
When the team is ready to move, the lead rescuer should communicate with the top side to ensure they are ready to capture progress of the victim. This essentially operates like a belay. Haul systems are often ineffective in this terrain due to all of the obstructions that the litter will encounter. The team then communicates to move up the hill together. As the rescuers advance, they slide their ascenders forward, reach back to the litter, and advance it up the hill while the top side middle line is tensioned. The rescuers can then pull themselves up to the next position and advance their ascenders again and repeat. This can be very methodical in difficult terrain environments or it can be very quick and smooth with longer movements and easier resets on easier terrain.
Developing or just refining this capability as an organization lays strong foundations for high angle capabilities. Rescuers will already be adept at the concepts of rappelling, belay operations, and lower haul systems hubs. The foundational equipment will also already be established. Effective training on low angle applications can typically be delivered over a weekend or two drill nights making it feasible and functional for volunteer groups seeking to grow their rope rescue capabilities. As a final summary, I’ve included a sample gear list of what was described in the scenario.
- 4 harnesses
- 100-foot rope
- 200-foot rope
- 3 anchor straps
- 2 right hand ascenders
- 2 left hand ascenders
- 1 litter
- 12 carabiners
- 4 prussiks
- 1 descent control/haul device (ID, clutch, Maestro, MPD)
I hope this encourages groups wanting to expand or refine their capabilities. Don’t be discouraged by the obstacles and embrace starting small. Sometimes biting off smaller bites can be the best way to progress. Stay safe and train hard.