By Michael Tain
Emergency response and aerial rescue in tree care operations are vast topics with a wide variety of possible situations that could confront any tree crew almost any day of the work week. This variety of scenarios is complicated and expanded in number by the many different tree care activities that climbing arborists carry out with the attendant multitude of techniques, gear and equipment. But this variety is also influenced by the many different ways that climbers and ground personnel injure themselves. After all, the emergency response plan for a dislocated shoulder should be somewhat different than that for an unconscious climber aloft with a fractured skull.
However, many companies and organizations train and practice for only one form of emergency response — typically one in which the victim needs to be returned to the ground as quickly as possible. This addiction to speed can lead to an unnecessary and false sense of urgency, as well as accompanying mistakes and sometimes fatal errors. Emergency response/aerial rescue training is vitally important, but many more factors and scenarios need to be considered prior to just practicing the typical five minute “crash and bash” scenario.
Training should be focused on the activities with which the company or crew are most often involved. For example, practicing open canopy rope and harness rescues is most likely going to be of little value to a crew that does 80 percent of its work from aerial lifts. The training and practice should be realistic in regard to the types of injuries with which the crew will most likely be confronted. Statistics show that most tree crews will confront an injury/accident on the ground, not aloft. This does not mean that aerial rescue should not be practiced, but, when practiced, the training should emphasize whether or not a rescue is even necessary. In the event a rescue is necessary, crew members should be trained to not cause any further harm/damage in rescuing the victim, while also avoiding becoming a “second victim” themselves.
As mentioned previously, there are a variety of emergency response and aerial rescue scenarios in the tree care world, but among the most challenging to the rescuer is the safe retrieval of a climber off a spar pole. This scenario can be challenging for many reasons, including the severity of the victim’s injury, their state of consciousness, and lack of branches or tie-in points on the spar pole. But typically the biggest challenge is one the victim could and should have rectified from the outset — climbing without an escape route or climbing system. There are few maneuvers requiring more strength and dexterity than getting the weight of an unconscious or severely injured climber off their spurs and work positioning lanyard, while avoiding getting gaffed, and lowering them safely under control to the ground. An emergency response/training plan that incorporates at least some of the following basic considerations will go a long way toward helping would-be rescuers better prepare to overcome the challenge presented by a spar pole rescue.
A Choking Friction Saver installed on a palm tree. This system not only provides a means of ascent and descent for the climber, but gives the rescuer a “head start” on lowering a victim out of the tree.
Photo by H. NeustaeterThe safest and most efficient way to carry out an aerial rescue is to avoid having to do one altogether. In many cases, the simple use by the victim of some form of choking climbing system would have allowed them to lower themselves safely to the ground — even if fairly seriously injured. After all, a climber needs only one functioning hand to descend on a climbing hitch. If the victim is incapacitated or unable to run their hitch themselves, the rescuer is one step closer to getting the victim to the ground safely and efficiently if a system is already in place.
There are several choking systems that work well in spar pole climbing, many of which will be discussed in a later column. But for those unfamiliar with the term, a choking system refers to set-ups such as the Choking Friction Saver, Running Bowline with Gri-gri, or the Monkey Tail developed by Odis Sisk — all of which provide climbers with some form of escape route to the ground, and also give them the ability to descend or position themselves easily and have less of their weight on the spurs while working.
“Pick off” or mechanical advantage
Rescuers confronted with an unconscious victim, or one who is simply unable to get their weight off their spurs and work positioning lanyard, are going to need some method to lift or “pick off” the victim’s bodyweight. These systems may also be required in spar pole rigging operations where the climber has been struck and pinned by large woody debris. In these cases, the system would be used to allow removal of the wood, branch, or piece from the victim.
A pre-configured “pick off” system used by James Luce of Bellingham, Wash. Note the integrated climbing hitch for control in both directions, though the running end of the line should still be minded/belayed for safety.
Photo by James LuceClimbers who have not dealt with floppy “deadweight” objects would be well advised to attempt to pick up a 150-pound feed sack of corn meal off the floor. Then imagine doing it perched on spurs or in a climbing system from the side of or beneath of a living, breathing, and possibly bleeding feed sack, which may very well weigh much more than 150 pounds. Needless to say, it is not easily accomplished with sheer strength and determination.
A pre-configured “pick off” or mechanical advantage system — already assembled and ready to go in the aerial rescue/emergency response kit with any needed slings and connecting links — will streamline the process by eliminating the need to gather and assemble the required pulleys, ropes, etc. while the victim dangles helplessly aloft. The system can also be set up to lower the victim under control once his or her weight is off the spurs and lanyard, typically through the use of a Port-a-wrap or secondary climbing hitch. Regardless of which type of mechanical advantage system is used, all crew members should be familiar with its use and location in the truck, as trees do not always pick the least experienced or trained crew member to injure.
The evaluation process should start even before the rescuer leaves the ground through communication with the victim. It may very well be that, after calming down, and, assuming an escape route is available, the victim may be able to return him or herself to the ground, where the injury can be evaluated and treated more easily.
If the victim is unconscious, but has a pulse and is breathing, the best option for the rescuer might be to await the arrival of the emergency medical professionals to get their input before bringing the victim down, particularly if head/neck/spine injuries are suspected. In short, rescuers should do their best to “do no harm,” by moving the victim unnecessarily when they are stable and secure. Crew members with more advanced medical training, such as First Responders, Emergency Medical Technicians, or Paramedics are, of course, better trained and equipped to evaluate the safety of victim movement and treatment, and can greatly assist in this injury evaluation process.
Static or dynamic line lowering
Rescuers who choose to take up and set a separate line to lower themselves and the victim as one unit, either statically or dynamically, should be very aware of the increased weight and friction their hitch or device is going to experience, as this could cause failure or simply lack of functionality. For example, attempting to lower the weight of two personnel on a Figure 8 without ears can often cause the parts of the rope to move around the device, creating a girth hitch and leaving both victim and rescuer suspended (thus the ears on a Rescue 8, which prevent this occurrence). In addition, rescuers should have someone mind their line or belay them, as the additional weight of the victim will make it very difficult to control the rate of descent.
A practice spar pole rescue illustrating the number of lines that may be present and the hazard of employing a knife as part of the emergency response plan.
Photo by H. Neustaeter
Although there are many more considerations, training and practice with these topics in mind will lead to the development of a plan that is not only realistic and efficient, but much more likely to function as smoothly as possible in the event of an injury or accident to a climber aloft on a spar pole.
Michael “House” Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions www.northamericantrainingsolutions.com and Arbor Canada Training and Education www.arborcanada.com. He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.