Incidents requiring advanced rope skills can occur anywhere and at any time. Two such incidents have occurred here in New York City in the past 2 years—but don’t think for a second that this could only happen in NYC. Scaffolds, industrial parks, traveling amusements, communication towers, tower cranes and bridges, as well as transportation sites, such as overhead trams and elevated subway areas, all pose threats.
The list of potential scenarios can go on indefinitely, but with a sound grasp of rope skills, you can adapt to almost any situation. Ask yourself: Do I have the expertise, or is it readily available to me if needed? It may require some additional training for your rescue team and equipment in your rescue tool cache, but the payoff can be immense.
The use of rope in the fire service has come a long way. For example, in the 1960s and 70s, basic utility rope was used for all types of fire-related activities: lifting, lowering or even securing equipment; conducting rope rescue operations to remove trapped victims; and everything in between.
Tragically, one of these ropes contributed to the deaths of two Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) firefighters on July 27, 1980. A firefighter was lowered from the roof of an apartment building to remove a firefighter who was cut off by fire from his primary means of egress. The lowered firefighter reached the trapped firefighter and removed him from a precarious position, but as the two lowered, the rope broke and the firefighters fell to their deaths. This incident was a big wake-up call for the fire service at that time, especially on the East Coast. The incident was studied, and new national standards on rope rescue and training were developed and implemented to ensure this would not happen again.
Rope skills have not only become more refined, they’ve become a requirement in today’s fire service. From the simplest rescue to the most advanced, there isn’t much out there that doesn’t include or require ropes. From simple systems, such as tying essential knots and installing basic hardware, to advanced systems, such as high-line systems and urban lead climbing, all are essential skills for rescue technicians. The bottom line: Most rescue disciplines require some form of rope skills, and although you don’t have to be an expert, you must develop skills to operate efficiently with your team in an emergency.
In this article, I will focus on a technical rescue that occurred in my jurisdiction that highlights just some of the complicating factors you might face.
Bronx Zoo Gondola Ride
It was hot and humid at approximately 1830 hrs on July 10, 2008, when fire dispatch received a call confirming a stalled high-line gondola ride over the Bronx Zoo. Thirteen cars were stranded on the gondola ride, which crosses over an outdoor animal pen. New York City Police Department (NYPD) rescue units arrived on scene and began to develop a rescue plan to remove stranded riders from the stalled cars. High winds and an impending storm added to the complexity of the event: One of the cars cables had dislodged in high winds, allowing the gondola car to separate from the system.
Like many gondola rides and ski lifts throughout the country, this ride features electrical motors that pull a cable through pulleys to drive the cars. The cable that runs over the tops of the pulleys was dislodged by the wind, preventing the cars from moving. Each car was suspended approximately 60–100 feet above the ground, with 39 people distributed among 13 cars. Personnel immediately cut the power and stationed a firefighter, who implemented lock-out, tag-out procedures, at the switch for the duration of the event.
Our primary concern: The car that had detached from the pulley system in the strong winds was dangling from a cable approximately 100 feet in the air with four passengers trapped inside. Two NYPD rescue personnel used lead-climbing techniques to ascend the tower nearest the suspended car with a straight-vertical man-way maintenance ladder. At the top, rescuers assessed the people in the car for injuries while providing reassurances that they would be removed soon.
The Bronx Zoo requested a hydraulic crane with a rated “man basket” to remove these victims first. The man basket was attached to the crane when it arrived and set up in a position to allow the boom of the crane to reach the stranded passengers. A rescue firefighter and police officer entered the basket and removed the occupants of the imperiled car. The man basket was brought directly in line and alongside the stalled car and then secured to prevent any additional movement when the victims entered the basket. Each victim was outfitted with a diaper harness, attached to a rope and then guided into the basket. When all four victims were inside and secured, the crane operator lowered them to safety.
At this point, the remaining victims had been trapped for approximately 3 hours. There were now 35 people still stuck inside 12 cars.
To rescue the remaining passengers, the plan was to reposition the cable into its proper place on top of the pulleys and start the gondola up for removal via normal means of exit. Note: This is not standard operating procedure, because utilities shut down by fire department personnel should only be restored by qualified utility personnel after the scene is declared safe by emergency personnel.
In the event that our initial plan didn’t work, we had to devise a secondary means of extricating our victims. Five of the six towers supporting the cable could be accessed by 95′ tower ladder apparatus. Should the gondola for some reason not power up, the remaining passengers would have to be removed via the rescue crane or the tower ladder buckets. The trucks were placed into position early in the operation for this contingency. Of particular concern: These stalled cars were located over wild animal enclosures. Although the fire service prides itself on accomplishing the impossible, I wasn’t too sure how to act if confronted by an angry gorilla! Cars were suspended above a tiger den, a baboon village and the gorilla den. Zoo personnel on the scene placed these animals in their interior habitats, thus allowing clear access to these areas if needed.
The next step involved putting the cable back in its proper position to get the system moving. The crane operator used the hook of the crane to pull the cable upward. Then, with the help of rescuers, the cable was placed back on top of the pulleys so the cars could run. The two members on the tower and two members in the rescue basket worked with the crane operator and various hand tools to accomplish this feat. Once the cable was in place, power was restored and the cars began to move. All remaining passengers were removed safely from the landing terminal.
The entire incident took approximately 5 hours and involved multiple agencies. Unified command consisted of FDNY, the NYPD and FDNY EMS. Other coordinating agencies included the Bronx Zoo (engineers and maintenance personnel), the Office of Emergency Management and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as well as the utility companies standing by. All members operated professionally in their effort to remove the victims quickly, safely and with minimum risk involved.
Two tactical issues at this incident were significant for our department: communications and lead climbing.
Communications: The first communications obstacle we faced was a delayed notification to responding agencies. Although this is not a common occurrence, it could have resulted in the delay of getting the properly trained personnel to the scene. Tip: All emergency agencies—EMS, police, rescue, etc.—should communicate with each other immediately when they receive such a technical rescue call. This will ensure that all relevant agencies are in the loop. I can’t stress enough the importance of having not only timely but proper notification procedures in place prior to a technical rescue incident.
Some jurisdictions use their dispatch frequency for response as well as tactical channels. If this is the case in your jurisdiction, a secondary tactical channel should be activated to allow the rescuers to communicate with each other, thereby avoiding the potential confusion created by routine tactical and command transmissions. If personnel aren’t equipped with interoperable radios, a departmental liaison should be stationed at the command post (unified command) to relay messages to personnel.
Another issue: how to communicate with the trapped passengers. We used a public address (PA) system that could be heard by every car to keep the passengers up to date on the progress of the operation. Likewise, passengers were urged to use their cell phones to relay any emergencies or medical problems that occurred in their individual car. The police department was able to route any 911 calls from this area through to the command vehicle at the scene, providing pertinent information to the rescuers quickly. The announcements on the PA system were broadcast in both English and Spanish to ensure each victim comprehended what was being relayed or requested. These announcements helped to prevent panic and ensure that no one attempted self-rescue. Tip: Without a PA, a bullhorn would have worked fine as well, and it’s a good, versatile tool to keep on all apparatus.
As you might imagine, there are many areas of communication that can be addressed at these high-profile incidents. Commanders should identify the equipment they have and will require, as well as be creative in using different methods of communication to get the job done. Example: In a significant high-rise fire, the fire command communication system can be used to relay information to firefighters inside the building; bullhorns and cell phones (particularly the direct-connect function) can also serve as effective in transmitting messages.
Lead Climbing: Urban lead climbing is a skill brought to us from our friends in the recreational mountain climbing world, and it was employed with great success by the rescuers ascending via the straight-vertical ladder to the top of the tower.
Time was of the essence in the rescue of the first car because weather was so variable and the car’s situation so precarious. This method of ascent was quick and allowed rescuers to provided assurances to the victims and assess their status. The equipment needed to reset the cable was also shuttled up the ropes deployed by these two rescuers.
The lead-climb team is normally made up of two rescuers, the lead/rescue climber and the belayer (safety person). The lead climber carries all the gear, which is why equipment made of lighter material is preferred. Additionally, dynamic rope is used as opposed to the standard static rope, which we use for many rescue evolutions. Dynamic rope has more stretch than static rope and should be used exclusively for lead-climbing incidents. Static rope doesn’t safely sustain the impact load of a human because it lacks elasticity.
The lead climber’s task: to gain access in the safest, most effective manner possible, while using limited equipment. The incident commander must fully understand that the lead climber is exposed to life-threatening falls. The lead climber must be experienced and confident in their abilities, as this is a high-risk procedure with limited margins for error.
The rescue climber must find a safe and practical route while placing temporary anchors and affixing rope to them properly. Rescuers assisting the lead climber should follow the same route taken by the leader. The rope should always run as straight as possible to keep the friction to a minimum.
Urban lead climbing has found a niche in the FDNY rope rescue world, and it’s something our rescue technicians continually drill on. And there’s more out there—many other advanced techniques are practiced in other parts of the country. Training on these advanced techniques will allow rescue personnel to conduct just about any rope rescue incident they may encounter and enable them to better serve their communities when unusual incidents occur.
Many technical rescue teams are very proficient when it comes to rope rescue skills; traditional high-angle jobs, although technically challenging, are routine rope operations for those who practice them tirelessly. Unfortunately, not all of us have the time or the funding to work on advanced skills as much as we would like, but you must be prepared when you are faced with an operation that challenges your expertise.
Remember: Preparation is the key. Start to think about the hazards you may encounter in your area, and you can start to formulate the training and related rescue action plans to safely address any emergency.