‘Old School’ Rescue Techniques Still Work Today

Rescue training has changed greatly in the last 40 years, what with the advent of newer rescue equipment and the skills required to apply and utilize that equipment effectively and safely. There are more varieties and types of equipment to perform various rescues than ever before. The “general rescuer,” and even the rescue specialist, have more tools available now than ever. 


The rescue ladder slide can be utilized to raise or lower a victim.

New standards for rescue are more prevalent, along with ever-changing protocols, SOPs, SOGs, IMS’s, etc., all in an effort to be the “best and safest we can be.” We NEED to be proficient with new technologies, procedures and skills. The public has a right to expect this, and we have an obligation to provide it.

When I began my volunteer rescue career 43 years ago, there were no Hurst extrication tools, no hydraulic rams, no cutters, no reciprocating saws, no brake bars racks or brake tubes, or even much in the way of locking carabiners. Goldline rescue rope was the standard for high level rescues, and right-lay poly-plus rope was the standard for rigging. We did have a lot of military surplus trucks and equipment. A truck-mounted winch, chains, cable come-alongs and hydraulic porta-power units were rescuers’ best friends in an extrication — along with a good wrecker operator, and a lot of hand tools. If a department was lucky enough to own a “Cecil’s Rig” for extrication, they were considered by their peers as being advanced in extrication. If a rescue squad had a motorized flat-bottom boat or a “V” hull boat and life jackets — all was well for water rescues.

Well, how things have changed! Was rescue just simpler back in those days? How were any of us ever able to survive the rescues we performed? And, how did all our victims survive being rescued? We did what we had to do with what equipment and training was available.

It is inevitable that rescue technology should change to meet improved safety and changing demands. Likewise, our training should adapt to current technologies and potential, or actual, rescue needs. But I would submit to you that, pound for pound, rescues were just as challenging “way back then” as they are today — just somehow different in how we approached them — with the equipment available.

The stokes basket carefully raised or lowered on the inclined ladder with rescuer attendant.

While it is mandatory upon us as rescuers to adapt, learn and apply new skills for our safety and the victims’ safety, some skills, those “time-honored rescue skills,” will never change; that is, their uses and abilities, will never change. Yes, how we apply these “old technologies” may change and newer, safer equipment will allow these old skills to be applied safer, but the basic fundamentals don’t change. Physics is physics, period.

Here is a scenario. Suppose you have been called to a remote industrial rescue site where a maintenance worker is down in a large, concrete storm spillway/drain in an earthen dam, following a few days of rainfall. The worker, sent to briefly inspect the spillway for any damages, must now be raised out of this drain when he accidentally fell into it during his maintenance inspection. He is not far down into this concrete spillway, some water is flowing down the spillway, but he is unable to extricate himself without assistance. Injuries are not too serious, but back or neck injury is probable, and he has a broken leg.

A 24 ft. extension ladder with the fly section lashed to the bed section with round lashing.

The solution? Bring in the ladder truck, and we will raise him out of his predicament and rescue completed. Not a bad idea. But as soon as the truck starts out on the dam, it sinks axle deep in the soft soil. Now that end of the dam is blocked to any further access onto the dam. Other trucks driven out onto the dam will suffer the same fate. Hmmmm — how are we going to raise this worker from the spillway?

While there are several technical rescue techniques available to affect this rescue safely, I must fall back to what I have said in many past articles: keep the rescue safe and simple!  An experienced rescuer will seek the simplest, safest, effective method to perform this rescue. In training rescuers in rescue rigging, the use of ladders and their tremendous versatility simply cannot be overstated.

What about a ladder slide, used in “reverse” to raise the victim in a stokes basket?

An acceptable alternative, but, due to the possibility of neck/spinal injury, we should look at a way to raise the victim horizontally. How about a “ladder as a derrick” raise, to raise the victim in the horizontal position? It is plain, simple, very effective, but not widely used in the rescue service. It is taught in the North Carolina Technical Rescuer certification, but used rarely. It can be easily rigged to lift a victim from a myriad of circumstances, such as manholes, trenches, smaller sized grain bins, etc. It is also very useful in lifting weights off victims — within the NFPA rated load limits for ladders — removing victims from damaged buildings with unstable walls or veneer facing, and only requires the basic knots and hardware used in rescue rigging.

A 24 ft. extension ladder rigged as a derrick for lifting a victim horizontally.

Rigging of the ladder-as-a-derrick uses a standard NFPA-rated rescue ladder to create a derrick, much like that of a crane. It is placed such that the tip of the ladder is over the victim, with the lifting device (stokes basket, reeves sleeve, bowman bag, etc.) that can be raised — or lowered if so rigged — out of a trench, silo, manhole, etc. The sections of the ladder are lashed together for safety, it utilizes two side guy lines used to tension the ladder during the evolution, so as to keep it from tipping sideways, an aft guy line to control the “lean” angle of the ladder, and a pulley change-of-direction off the ladder to a hauling system, either mechanical or manual — rescuers. When rigging a ladder derrick, the side and aft guy lines are constantly manned and monitored to assure constant tension is maintained to keep the ladder from falling sideways or from leaning too far forward over, or past the load being lifted. The rule of thumb for maximum lean of the ladder from vertical is: one-third of the length of the ladder from the base to the pulley sling, which is the third rung down from the top. So, if this measure is 16 feet, one-third x 16 is approximately five feet, thus the ladder does NOT lean from vertical more than five feet. If adequate anchors exist in the right locations and distances from the ladder, they may be substituted for pickets; otherwise picket systems work very well for this purpose. Note that the base of the ladder derrick must be secured to prevent the ladder from moving or “kicking out” while under load. In soft ground or on soil surfaces, this is easily accomplished with the use of steel pickets driven next to the ladder beams. The beams are then lashed to the pickets with round lashing.That is my very point in this article. MANY of the older methods of effective rescue are from the “old school.” Timber A-frames, timber tripods, timber gin poles, timber “jib arms,” ladder slides, leaning ladders, ladder A-frames, ladder “jib” arms, and ladder derricks — all are still as useful and effective today as 43 or more years ago. It’s just that fewer rescuers know how to rig them today. This type of rescue is called rescue rigging, and old school rescue rigging often gets “sidelined” in light of newer technology. Rescue rigging requires a working, advanced knowledge of ropes, knots, rigging hardware and mechanical advantage systems.

The rescue ladder used to raise or lower a victim.

Personally, I consider rescue rigging as a specialty area. But one thing is for certain: there will be times when mechanical equipment and machinery cannot access or be utilized at a rescue site for safety or logistical reasons. The rescue, however, remains to be done, and I contend that today’s rescuers should know how to do rescue rigging. In many years of training rescuers in rope rescue and rigging techniques, I have noticed a tremendous increase in self-confidence in the rescuer who possesses the rigging knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) to use their heads and hands, take whatever tools are needed out of the “rescue toolbox” (KSAs and materials) and rig a safe, effective rescue.

THAT my fellow rescuers is rescue.

These are only two examples of many to show how rigging can be of great benefit to rescuers. Rescue rigs are merely “tools in the rescue toolbox.” Ladder slides can be adapted to fit a wide variety of situations. Ladder derricks can easily be rigged from truck tailboards as well. The set-up possibilities are as varied as your skill and experience levels allow. All the rigs have to do is be safe, simple and effective.

Placement of the stokes basket between the beams of the rescue ladder for a raise or lower.

Ladder beams anchored in place with round lashing onto two steel pickets. Ladder beams anchored in place with round lashing onto two steel pickets.

I maintain that rigging is true rescue — taking the situation at hand, accessing your skills and selecting the tools needed, and erecting a proper system that accomplishes the task safely. But, all the rescue tools in your arsenal are useless without the knowledge, skills and experience to use them.

Seek training in as many of these “old school” techniques as possible. They are effective, efficient, and they will greatly improve your abilities and self-confidence when faced with an unusual rescue. You just never know when you’re going to need them.

An understanding of physics is needed in rescue. Weight, applied forces, actions and reactions — ALL have a bearing on how a rescue is to be performed safely. While much of this type of knowledge comes from study, most will come from field experience over years of practice and technical applications in a rescue career. Success comes to the ones who want it the most and believe in it the longest.

Bob Twomey is the founder and past chief of the North Carolina High Level Extraction Rescue Team, Inc. a volunteer helicopter search and rescue support team based in Transylvania County, North Carolina. He is the senior helicopter pilot for Wolf Tree Aviation, LLC operating out of Transylvania Community Airport. He has served in numerous officer and training positions in the Transylvania County Rescue Squad. He has been active in SAR for 41 years. He can be reached at 828-884-7174 or btwomey@citcom.net.

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