By Michael “House” Tain
An Anthron descent device in use during aerial lift evacuation training.
Photo by John RansomEmergency response for aerial lift operations in the tree care industry is a subject that, although it may seem counterintuitive to a large number of tree care professionals, is quite complex and demanding. It requires a great deal of training and practice to carry out safely, efficiently and successfully. In many ways, aerial lift evacuation and extrication may seem much simpler than the emergency response/rescue required by a climber, yet the response/rescue to or of an operator stranded or injured in an aerial lift poses challenges never found on rope. Although it can, in some ways, be less demanding physically than the rescue of a climber, it is certainly just as mentally challenging; and requires well-thought-out practices, protocols and training from the responder. As always, there is no substitute for hands-on training and practice, but thinking about, examining and incorporating a few key principals will go a long way toward an appropriate response in an aerial lift emergency.
Failure to use a full-body or five-point harness and deceleration lanyard — or any other form of connection — when aloft in an aerial lift is not only a violation of standards, but is also going to make the need for evacuation or regaining the bucket unnecessary in the event of an ejection, because the operator will be on the ground in a sad state of repair. The use of body belts or fall-restraint systems, though legal in some states under the governing regulations, makes evacuation very difficult, if not impossible; and makes uninjured survival of an ejection very unlikely.
In the case of operator incapacitation/injury or control failure, the options for movement of the bucket are limited to the ground controls and the skills, training and abilities of the ground personnel. All crew members should know the location of, and be familiar with, the operation of the lower controls of the aerial lift. In addition, the tree crew should have, know, and understand the protocols if electricity is involved; and is either directly or indirectly the cause of the emergency. Having multiple victims is not going to be helpful to anyone; and operating the lower controls with a pole pruner or saw is much simpler in discussions than it is in reality. If the operator is not incapacitated, but both the upper and lower controls are, the situation is called an evacuation.
An evacuation system that includes both an Anthron descent device and a movable anchoring ladder for ascending to release the dorsally attached deceleration lanyard.
Photo by Michael “House” TainAn aerial lift evacuation can entail a variety of situations and scenarios, but in its general form it involves an uninjured or mildly injured operator evacuating the bucket under his/her own power. This can be caused by a control or hydraulic failure; a fire in the truck, which prevents usual descent and operation; or even an ejection resulting in an inability to return to the controls. There are a variety of systems for evacuation, including those that aid in moving back up after ejection. Having the systems in or attached to the lift, but not connected — or incorrectly connected — to the operator is of no value. Knowledge of, and training with, these different systems is imperative for safe and effective use. As with any new system, trying to learn it “on the fly” can be a recipe for disaster, and perhaps further injury. Most of the systems involve mechanical descent devices and an included rope, but care must be taken to anchor these to the lift correctly in order to avoid chafing or cutting the rope on sharp edges of the lift during descent. In addition, the method of anchoring the system should be examined carefully for ease of exit from the bucket/basket in the event of an evacuation. The sudden movement of the anchor slipping, sliding or moving around during bucket exit can be quite alarming to the evacuating operator. It can also be catastrophic if they panic in the operation of the descent device or swing into the lift forcefully head or face first. Evacuation systems are sometimes “created” by having climbing systems in the bucket. Although this is certainly a viable option, care should be taken to ensure the “created” system interacts well with the available anchor points and whatever harnesses are typically worn during aerial lift operation.
A regain kit is a system that allows an operator to ascend to release their lanyard or regain the bucket. Note the small belt worn pouch in the right of the photo that can be used to step up to ease discomfort, pain, and the onset of suspension trauma.
Photo by Michael “House” TainHanging in a full-body or five-point harness, suspended from the dorsal attachment for even a small amount of time can be quite uncomfortable and painful. It can also be dangerous, sometimes leading to a condition called suspension trauma in which blood pools in areas of the body where circulation is restricted by the harness. There are small belt-worn straps that can give an ejected operator something to step up into to allow for normal blood flow periodically — not only easing pain and discomfort, but also decreasing the likelihood of the onset of suspension trauma, particularly in a situation that is taking a great deal of time to rectify.
Even though an evacuation system may be present, operators should be trained in, and have access to, a system that allows them to either regain the bucket or release their lanyard after securing the evacuation system. These systems must also be attached to both the operator and the lift correctly, as they will do the operator no good if they sit securely in the bucket while the operator twists in the air beneath it. Once again, dangling from a deceleration lanyard attached to the back of a full-body harness is not the time to consider how one is going to get up high enough to get the pressure off the lanyard to release it.
The removal of an unconscious or severely injured operator from the bottom of the bucket of an aerial lift is not a simple or physically easy task. Planning must be made as to how to carry this out prior to an actual emergency (this removal of the victim is often called extrication). Some lifts are equipped with systems, either powered or manual, that allow for the swiveling of the bucket/basket to a horizontal position, allowing the would-be rescuer to remove the victim. These systems vary with different manufacturers, and, if present on a particular lift, should be examined, learned and practiced periodically to ensure all members of the crew are familiar with, and capable of, their operation. Aerial lifts that do not have the capability to swivel can be equipped with a variety of systems intended to lift an operator from the bucket/basket. Once again, there are a multitude of systems — some using a number of pulleys to create mechanical advantage, some ratcheting cranks to create lift, some that “live” on the boom of the lift, some that are attached to the lip of the bucket, and some that can be attached to the boom or other anchor. All are meant to give a rescuer the lifting power and ability to remove an incapacitated operator from the bucket/basket, and begin first aid.
As in any emergency response situation, the rescuers must evaluate the scene for safety prior to responding, lest they become a second victim. Additionally, tree crew members who have little or no first aid or emergency medical training should always remember to “do no harm.” An unconscious operator with a pulse who is breathing on his/her own in a bucket that has been returned to ground level might best be left there until the emergency medical professionals arrive to further evaluate the patient’s situation and condition. All tree care companies and crews should have a standard written emergency response protocol that all employees and crew members are trained in and familiar with. A protocol such as this, properly carried out, will ensure that all the necessary steps — such as contacting emergency medical services, utilities if required, etc. — are carried out quickly and efficiently. Individual crew members should have a good idea of what is expected of them as individuals in the event of an emergency, as this will reduce the amount of time required to organize the crew’s response. Time is certainly of the essence in an emergency, but more in getting the right resources to the accident site, than in rushing the victim to the ground without regard for his/her safety or the safety of others.
Aerial lift evacuation and extrication is a vital and important skill for those tree care professionals often around and/or employing aerial lifts. Although, as with any arborist skill, it does require education and training, the implementation of some of the basic principles discussed here into the emergency response plan will assist greatly in increasing the measure of safety and success in the event of an emergency.
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.