Tech Rescue

Extrication: Know the Ropes

Issue 9 and Volume 7.

Earlier this year, a vehicle accident along Southern California’s Highway 101 left a car dangling over a 100′ drop near Santa Barbara. Seeing this incident made me question both my physical capabilities and mental preparation—but it also inspired me to better myself when it comes to certain extrication tactics.

In my January article “Extrication: Thinking INSIDE the box,” I wrote, “A firefighter’s job is extremely difficult due to the fact that we must be proficient at a variety of things. Not many jobs require you to be a caring and compassionate makeshift structural engineer/rope rescuer/knot-tying expert/hazmat guru—who also possesses cooking skills—but our job does!” This quote is certainly apropos when you think about extrication scenes like the one in Southern California, where our training for those high-risk, low-frequency events come into play.

Extrication & Ropes?
I’ve read numerous articles in the last year about the use of hand tools, air bags, air chisels, spreaders, cutters, stabilization struts, etc., at extrication scenes. But what about rescue rope and the accompanying hardware and software? I know what you’re thinking: “This guy has officially lost it. What do rope, carabineers and Prusik knots have to do with extrication?”

Well, there are only a few firefighters who know the answer to that—firefighters who have responded to an extrication/rescue scene as intricate as the one in Southern California. These are the calls where you pull out all the stops. Every tool and piece of equipment is off your rig—and three other rigs, too. Air chisels are chattering, spreaders are ripping metal, and air bags are lifting, all in conjunction. With a lot of skill and knowledge—and probably even a little luck—everything works out. The victims are rescued and live to tell a story, and the rescuers all go home safe to their loved ones.

The rescue described above is an example of a low-frequency call that we sometimes train for—and it definitely involved the rigging of a rope system. But what about the higher-frequency calls that all of us have been on dozens of times—like when a vehicle has rolled down an embankment and there are people trapped inside and your only access to the wreck is straight down the embankment/hill? And let’s just say for kicks that it has rained, creating a muddy and slippery downhill trail to our accident scene? We have two options: 1) a controlled slide, hoping that our balance and skiing skills are up to par and that there are no news cameras to film our graceful descent; or 2) rigging a low-angle rescue line to act as a makeshift handrail and lowering system to assist us with our slippery descent.

This is where we must all have a basic knowledge of rope rescue equipment, how to safely set up a low-angle/descent rescue rope line, and how to utilize it effectively while carrying rescue tool and extrication equipment. (Note: Any lifeline rope that is utilized for high-angle rescue where a rescuer and/or a victim’s body weight is loaded on the rope should NOT be used for this scenario.) Dedicate a rope for this type of low-angle auto extrication. Mud and debris don’t go well with high-angle lifeline/rescue rope; it causes too much damage to the outer sheathing and possibly even the core. Thus never interchange high-angle lifeline/rescue rope with any other type of rope.

Step-by-Step Training
Let’s now go through the steps of getting ready for using rescue rope at an extrication scene:

Step 1: Be prepared for this type of low-angle rescue by training in rope familiarization.

Step 2: During training, set up the low-angle rescue systems utilizing a single Prusik to act as a friction brake. This works best in an open bay at the firehouse so you can work out all of the kinks well in advance of an actual incident. Once the whole crew is comfortable with the multiple steps involved in the process, move to a steep slope where you can train on a more realistic scenario.

Step 3: Train on various ways in which all rescue and safety equipment can be lowered/shuttled to the location where the rescue and extrication will take place. This will be very difficult and time-consuming, but it’s better to get this crucial piece of the puzzle taken care of now and NOT at the scene of the auto accident at 3 a.m. Additionally, I highly recommend setting/securing your auto extrication and safety equipment in a Stokes-style basket. Again, this is very time-consuming, but the time spent will pay off for everyone involved in the rescue set-up process—especially the victims in need of rescue.

Step 4: Now it’s time to put the plan into action. Take the fire companies to the designated training slope and do a full-scale trial rescue deployment. Set up the lowering system with all the needed rescue rope and hardware. Send a recon team down the slop to assess the conditions of your “patients” and radio back what extrication and safety equipment they need. Send down all the requested equipment and firefighters needed to perform the rescue safely and effectively.

Once this is done, switch roles and have someone new rig the rescue rope lowering system, package the cutters and spreaders into the Stokes, etc. I can’t stress this enough. You all know as well as I do that when you do get the huge fire or crazy auto accident is when you have an acting engineer and your senior firefighter is on vacation. Train accordingly and train often.

Try It Out!
There are many ways to perform any operation, so test them out. As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat—and auto extrication is no different. What works great for Denver Fire may not be applicable to Philadelphia. The important thing is to find the system that works well for your department and you. Train hard, work smart and stay safe!