Spokane Firefighters Perform High-Angle Rescue of Fallen Climber
By Tom Vines
As the popularity of rock climbing increases, so does the number of rock climbing-related accidents and injuries. A study published in the online issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine revealed a 63 percent increase in the number of patients treated in U.S. emergency departments for rock climbing-related injuries between 1990 and 2007, with more than 40,000 patients being treated in this timeframe.
A May 3 response illustrates a typical climbing accident. At 1025 HRS, the Combined Communication Center in Spokane, Wash., received a 911 call from a rock climber reporting that his climbing partner had been injured in a fall and was trapped on a rock ledge in Spokane’s Shields Park.
Spokane County Fire District 9 (SCFD9) responded with Engine 94, Rescue 92 (a heavy and technical rescue unit), TRT9 (SCFD9’s Technical Rescue Team) and 920 (the duty chief). American Medical Response also responded with an ALS ground unit.
The 19-year-old male patient had been practicing lead-climbing techniques on a 75' vertical rock wall, placing protection in the rock as he ascended, while his partner belayed him from below. When the lead climber’s protection unexpectedly failed, he fell approximately 25 feet, landing on a small ledge about 40 feet above the ground.
Engine 94 arrived at 1034 HRS with a crew of four, one of whom was a rescue technician. The officer established command at the bottom of the cliff with another company member, while the rescue technician and the fourth company member, who had a basic rope rescue pack, made their way to the top of the cliff and began setting up for a high-angle rescue.
The technician’s initial plan was to rappel down to the victim on a 150' rescue rope while using a nearby climbing rope as a belay. However, once the duty chief arrived, that plan was overruled in favor of waiting for a second rescue rope to arrive on scene.
Rescue 92 arrived shortly thereafter with a crew of five, including four rescue technicians, and additional gear. The senior tech was designated Rescue Group Supervisor and put in charge of coordinating efforts at the top. It was decided to lower one rescuer with a basket litter to the ledge, where he would package the victim and then continue on to the ground. For a lowering on 300-foot-long ropes, they anchored a brake bar rack to trees, along with a separate belay system constructed of tandem Prusiks.
The SCFD9 members had trained for several years with the Arizona Vortex Multipod, and there was one on an apparatus at the scene. But because the plan was to lower the victim to the ground, not to haul him, it was decided that the rescue could be accomplished quicker and just as efficiently using edge rollers.
As additional TRT members arrived on scene, rescuers completed the rigging by attaching a tag line to the head and foot of the litter. This would allow rescuers below to pull the litter away from the rock wall.
The litter and attendant were now lowered to the patient. The litter tender soon requested a second rescuer to assist with victim transfer and packaging, so another technician rappelled in with a large Figure-8 plate. With the patient immobilized on a spine board with a C-collar, the two rescuers placed the patient in the litter secured with a victim harness attached to the lowering/belay system. The litter was attached to the lowering belay system using four legs of half-inch Kermantle lines, made adjustable with Prusik hitches. The harness legs were brought up together and attached to the lowering/belay system with a rigging plate.
Once the patient was packaged, he and the litter tender were lowered to the ground without incident. Firefighters and AMR personnel then carried the patient in the litter approximately 75 yards to the waiting ambulance.
At 1222 HRS, AMR transported the patient to Sacred Heart Medical Center. Total time from 911 call to ambulance transport was a little less than 2 hours.
After the victim and rescuers were off the cliff, a third rescuer rappelled down the climber’s route to remove the personal climbing gear and return it to the patient’s climbing partner. Once all rescue equipment had been returned and apparatus placed in service, a tailboard critique was performed prior to leaving the scene at 1300 HRS.
Sources: Jim Thoen, SCFD9 TRT coordinator, provided information for this report.
Lessons Learned / Lessons Reinforced:
(Provided by Jim Thoen)
1. “Related to the tiered response, all SCFD9 career firefighters are trained to the operations level, and technicians are often working throughout the district as well. Incidents such as this demonstrate the importance of rapidly getting trained personnel on scene to size up an incident and request additional resources, as well as establish anchors and, if necessary, access the victim.
2. “Rescuers are rarely called upon to perform rescues that are identical to training scenarios. However, SCFD9’s TRT regularly trains on high-angle litter rescue, and this incident was about as ‘close to normal’ as one can get.
3. “Most technical rescues require only a few rescuers to don harnesses. The problem: No one knows in advance exactly how many rescuers will need harness. In this instance, three rescuers went over the edge, and several more were tied off as edge attendants. There’s no substitute for personal preparedness.”
Rescue Editor Tom Vines is the co-author of “High Angle Rescue Techniques” and “Confined Space and Structural Rope Rescue.” He operates a rope-rescue consulting group in Red Lodge, Mont.